Many industrial facilities and chemical processes have been introduced with great economic benefit to the State of Western Australia, providing employment and economic returns to companies, government and in turn the community of Western Australia.
In recent years the social and environmental costs and benefits of these projects have been widely debated in local communities, the wider community, Parliament and the media.
There has been growing community concern in various locations throughout WA about potential health impacts to workers and local communities of a wide range of industrial emissions and waste management processes. In particular concerns have emerged from employees of, and the communities around, Alcoa’s refinery at Wagerup, with people experiencing negative health and social impacts.
In November 2001 Hon Jim Scott MLC noted those concerns had been brought to his attention. Significant health and environmental impacts were being reported in and around Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery, despite the recorded levels of individual chemicals not exceeding permissible levels.
The Committee resolved on November 8 2001 to commence an inquiry into the Alcoa refinery at Wagerup. Terms of reference specific to the issues at Wagerup ensured the scope of the inquiry remained focused.
The Committee’s inquiry considered several key issues:
Recommendation 1: The Committee recommends that Government agencies and regulatory authorities should use the term ‘emissions’ rather than ‘odours’ to describe general emissions from the refining process.
Recommendation 2: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment establish a more readily accessible and transparent complaint handling system which includes formal acknowledgment when a complaint is registered.
Recommendation 3: The Committee recommends that the Department of Health, as a matter of priority, establish a discrete, organised public health response to the situation at Wagerup. This should comprise, in part:
Recommendation 4: The Committee recommends that the Government review its decision to close the Yarloop Community Clinic.
Recommendation 5: The Committee recommends that the Government give immediate priority to the establishment and long-term funding of an Environmental Health Foundation, to be independent from Government but required to report to the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Health.
Recommendation 6: The Committee recommends that the Government should cause all reports received from the Environmental Health Foundation to be tabled before each House of Parliament.
Recommendation 7: The Committee recommends that the membership of the Environmental Health Foundation include community representation.
Recommendation 8: The Committee recommends that that the Environmental Health Foundation report to Government on, among other things:
Recommendation 9: The Committee recommends that the Government facilitate the development of the study of environmental health in Western Australia, particularly in the area of environmental toxicology to ensure the availability of fully qualified, experienced and independent toxicologists.
Recommendation 10: The Committee recommends that the Department of Health should ensure access to appropriate medical expertise and diagnostic health and support services for people with multiple chemical sensitivities and other chemical injuries.
Recommendation 11: The Committee recommends that the Government consider amending the Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 1981 in relation to the recognition of cover for those people who may have symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivities and in so doing to seek advice from the proposed Environmental Health Foundation and other relevant stakeholders.
Recommendation 12: The Committee recommends that the proposed CSIRO Wagerup Air Quality Research Program be undertaken as a priority.
Recommendation 13: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment work with Alcoa to take immediate action to remediate contaminated ground water at Alcoa’s refinery at Wagerup.
Recommendation 14: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment investigate methods of extraction of water from the Harvey River to ensure that water being extracted by Alcoa occurs only during periods of peak nutrient levels.
Recommendation 15: The Committee recommends that at the planning stage for new industries and for the expansion of existing facilities in Western Australia, the Department of Environment should require emissions dispersion modelling to use site specific data rather than generic meteorological data unless a specific exemption is warranted.
Recommendation 16: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment should assess licensed industrial premises in Western Australia to determine the appropriateness, in each case, of requiring continuous emissions monitoring.
Recommendation 17: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment, as a matter of priority, cause an effective dust suppression program to be implemented at the residue disposal areas at the Alcoa refinery at Wagerup.
Recommendation 18: The Committee recommends that the State Government take critical note of current breaches of the existing noise limits for Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery in its consideration of the proposal to increase production from the refinery.
Recommendation 19: The Committee recommends that significant increased funding be provided by the State Government to the Department of Environment in line with funding in other States to enable it to adequately carry out its regulatory role.
Recommendation 20: The Committee recommends that the Government, as a matter of priority, develop and finalise air emission guidelines specific to Western Australia and that these should include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and standards for multiple chemical exposure.
Recommendation 21: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment requires Alcoa, as a licence condition, to inform the Department of Industry and Resources as well as the Department of Environment, when emission events occur.
Recommendation 22: The Committee recommends that the Department of Health, as a matter of priority, derive a hazard index for locations near to Wagerup in order to assess the health risks caused by the cumulative impact of the very high number of chemicals mixed together in the emissions from Alcoa’s refinery at Wagerup.
Recommendation 23: The Committee recommends that the regulatory regimes and practices relating to the:
Recommendation 24: The Committee recommends that the regular recording and auditing of workplace accidents and emission incidents be made a part of the safety and health regime of the Department of Industry and Resources. This information should be used for early identification of safety and health problems and for identifying whether existing safety and emission regulations are effective. The information should be publicly available.
Recommendation 25: The Committee recommends that the Department of Industry and Resources be adequately funded to undertake the responsibilities referred to in Recommendation 24.
Recommendation 26: The Committee recommends that the Government carry out a review of legislation and administrative procedures governing the engagement of consultants by government agencies to reduce the potential for conflict of interest.
Recommendation 27: The majority of the Committee recommends that the Government review and report on the role of the Department of Industry and Resources as both regulator of mine safety and facilitator of mine developments with a view to determining whether such roles might be better addressed in separated agencies. The report of any review should be tabled in Parliament. Hons Bruce Donaldson and Robyn McSweeney MLCs dissented from this Recommendation.
Recommendation 28: The majority of the Committee recommends that, in addition to the proposed amendments to the Mines Safety and Inspection Act 1994 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 (refer to paragraphs 9.214 to 9.221 of this report), the Government amend the legislative regime to require that all occupational safety and health matters in Western Australia come under one Act, namely the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984. Hons Bruce Donaldson and Robyn McSweeney MLCs dissented from this Recommendation.
Recommendation 29: The Committee recommends that the Government review legislation and make necessary amendments to ensure that the Department of Health has a formal role in advising the Environmental Protection Authority in relation to the assessment of projects that may impact on public health.