Feb 29, 2012

Elevated Mercury Levels at Orica

Members of the Orica Community Participation and Review Committee recently were given an update on both reported elevated mercury levels at the Orica plant and proposed future steps.

I thought it would be of interest to Councillors and our residents for this material to be given wider circulation.

The material given to the Community Participation and Review Committee provides information on the next steps in recommencing operation of the Direct Thermal Desorption (DTD) plant at the Orica Car Park Waste Remediation Project. The elevated mercury levels were detected in from stack samples taken on 14 to 16 December 2011 and reported to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) on 17 January 2011.

The elevated mercury levels detected were just another in a series of adverse events at Orica plants in New South Wales. None of the adverse events in any way detracts from concerns I have  many times expressed about Orica’s operations.

Following the elevated mercury level readings, Orica was required to undertake an extensive review of its Direct Thermal Desorption plant operating procedures.

This review, we were advised, concluded that the cause was a higher contaminant loading during the Supplementary Proof of Performance Test, resulting in instability during the DTD process.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has now met with Orica a number of times to review the information from its investigation and the CPRC’s Independent Expert Panel has been provided with relevant reports and test data.

This information will help the EPA to decide when and how the plant can re-start. The CPRC was advised of the next steps at a plant which has what I might describe as a chequered past.

The first step in the process of re-starting the Direct Thermal Desorption plant is to conduct a “hot blow through”. This is a short test in which the plant is operated without treating any contaminated soil.

The test results from the hot blow through will be used to determine whether the maintenance activities conducted in response to the incident were successful in treating any remaining mercury accumulation in the plant.

The Direct Thermal Desorption plant will be shut down following the hot blow through until the test results are received by the EPA. The EPA will then determine the best approach for resuming the safe treatment of contaminated soils in the plant. The EPA is continuing its investigation into the compliance issues associated with the elevated mercury levels.

Perhaps the only bit of positive news from this incident was that supplied by Professor Brian Priestly from Monash University who is part of their independent expert panel for this project.

Professor Priestly advised that he concurred with a statement from the EPA which said that none of the emissions in December represented no likely impact on the health of the nearby community,

This is at least something.

But it does not detract from the long standing and systemic distrust this Council has of Orica operations.

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