Rhodes Remediation

When land becomes polluted, it can lie idle for years, unable to be used due to hazardous contaminants in the soil. For contaminated land to be safe to use again, it needs to be cleaned up. 

In recent times, land remediation has become common, with old industrial sites in particular, targeted for urban renewal. In cities where there is a growing shortage of land for development, renewal has become a major driver for land clean-up and the Rhodes Peninsula is a prime example. Situated about 20km west of Sydney’s CBD, the area was earmarked for redevelopment, over 20 years ago, as was its near neighbour, the iconic Sydney Olympic Park site. 

The Environment Protection Authority ( EPA) was the leader in the remediation of the Rhodes Penninsula, for EPA information about the site please visit thier website.

The need for remediation

Rhodes Peninsula was the birthplace of Australia’s chemical industry and the site of chemical manufacturing for nearly 60 years. Starting in 1928, the industry produced chemical products including paints, solvents and pesticides. Timbrol was a successful Australian chemical company, later sold to the American chemical giant, Union Carbide. Both companies made pesticides, and in the process, created chemical wastes which contained impurities known as dioxins. In those days, there was little knowledge about the toxicity of man-made chemicals and no industry regulation. Chemical waste was used to fill in the mudflats of Homebush Bay, creating new land where more factories were built.

At the time it was seen as a plus for industrial development but the end result was heavily contaminated land and sediment. For both commercial and environmental reasons, there was a clear need to remediate the area. 

Dioxins

People did not know about the dangers of dioxins until serious land and air pollution problems surfaced in Europe and the USA in the 1970s. Research into dioxins and chemicals called furans was undertaken and scientists established they were highly persistent on the environment and, like the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), contaminated the food web and accumulated in the fatty tissue of all living creatures, including humans. Bio-medical research showed that the presence of these chemicals in the body could cause cancer, damage the nervous system, cause reproductive disorders and disrupt the immune system.

Stockholm Convention

The implications of these findings were debated for years before the Stockholm Convention was established as a global response to the problem. The Convention aimed to reduce or eliminate dioxin and other forms of pollution and created a consensus about the need to reduce dioxin levels everywhere.

In this way, it provided a stimulus to the clean-up process on the Rhodes Peninsula.

The Stockholm Convention

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is an international treaty put in place after more than forty years of global concern about some of the chemicals used in agriculture, industry and urban pest control. Industrial by-products called dioxins and furans were also a concern. As a group, these substances are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

The dangers of POPs came to world attention in 1962 when American biologist Rachael Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring, which focused on the downside of chemical use. She explored how the agricultural use of the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) contaminated the environment and accumulated in animal tissue. This process, known as bio-accumulation made egg-shells thinner and more prone to break. When this happened, the chicks inside died before they reached maturity. With fewer birds born, fewer birds would sing, so Carson called it a 'Silent Spring'.

Silent Spring created a sensation when it was published. It created public awareness about the link between hazardous chemicals and damage to wildlife and is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement.

Regardless of these early warnings, it took many years for scientists to gather enough evidence to make the case for a global ban on the use of POPs, and other matters dealt with in the Stockholm Convention. Non-government organisations, including consumer and environmental groups, campaigned for two decades to secure agreement on the need for the Treaty and more time passed while the United Nations, other international agencies and sovereign governments worked out how to create a Treaty which would be globally acceptable.

The adoption of the Stockholm Convention

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is one of three United Nations Treaties on hazardous chemicals. It was adopted on 22 May, 2001 and came into force on 17 May, 2004. The Convention targets the elimination of some of the world’s most dangerous man-made chemicals, setting out a range of control measures to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate their release to the environment. The Convention covers pesticides like DDT, Dieldrin and Chlordane, once widely used in Australia in agricultural, commercial and domestic settings. 

The Stockholm Convention also covers stockpiled wastes. Dioxin-contaminated soils and sediments like those that once existed at Rhodes also come under the Convention, as do dioxin emissions produced during the destruction of those wastes. However, when it comes to human health, POPs released to the atmosphere are not the main concern of government regulators. Health authorities stress that over 90 percent of human exposure occurs through food intake, with foods of animal origin (including milk) being the predominant dietary source.

Environment and Heritage Protection Council

The Australian Government ratified the Convention in May 2004. It nominated the Environment and Heritage Protection Council to coordinate the National Action Plan on Dioxin, with each state or territory making their own laws to control POPs contaminated wastes and stockpiles.

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Changing technologies offer improved cleanup options

When Rachael Carson published Silent Spring, a new era of awareness about pollution began. Her description about the impact of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) on the reproductive cycle of birds was a milestone in environmental science and was made possible by chemists who developed techniques to measure chemical residues in animal tissue. At the time, the capacity to detect hazardous chemicals like Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) pesticides was limited and industrial waste products like dioxins were hardly known to science or medicine. 

Dioxins came under increasing scrutiny after the 1976 industrial disaster in Seveso, Italy, when people received the highest dose of dioxin ever recorded. This tragic event drew attention to the need for better regulation of chemicals (particularly POPs) and governments all over the world began to legislate to regulate their use. Industry responded too, seeking out alternatives and exploring ways to get rid of POPs wastes. Chemists continued to refine their techniques and biologists starting exploring how tiny amounts of POPs contamination in human tissue could affect health.

Destruction technologies and methods

In Australia, public concern about dioxins began around 1987 when there was a fierce debate about where to build an incinerator to destroy POPs waste stockpiles. The proposed national facility never eventuated, and fit-for-purpose destruction technologies were selected. For POPs contaminated soils, there were a number of treatment options and at Rhodes, two thermal desorption plants were nominated; Indirect Thermal Desorption (IDT) at the Union Carbide Australia Limited (UCAL) site (now known as the Waterways NSW site) and Direct Thermal Desorption (DTD) at the Meriton site. 

At this time, when the most appropriate remediation processes were being considered, the indirect method appeared favourable to the community, who had the benefit of an Olympic legacy i.e. the successful destruction of POPs wastes at North Newington using a two-stage process utilising indirect thermal desorption. 

However, eventually the Direct Thermal Desorption method was selected for use on both sites at Rhodes. This decision was the result of what may be called a tradeoff in relation to outcomes. People wanted a greater scale of sediment clean-up than was possible financially, and so the remediator re-assessed its Remediation Action Plan for the Union Carbide Australia Limited site and proposed to increase sediment clean-up in the bay and use the less costly and quicker Direct Thermal Desorption method on the land.

The government approved the change, remediation proceeded in accordance with the approvals, and was completed in 2010, with Thiess Services vacating the site in May 2011.

Site Audit Statements by Independent Auditors verified that remediation according to the approvals had occurred and that the land was now suitable for its intended purpose as indicated under the master planning of the area.

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The 'Green Games' legacy

The 2000 Olympic Games improved the quality of urban development in Sydney and set a new benchmark in the clean-up of contaminated land. Government was obliged to take environmental values seriously so it could meet targets set by Green Games guidelines and industry front-runners saw economic value in providing more environmentally-friendly goods and services. It was a ‘win-win’ for government and industry and public support was high. A major goal was to improve the natural environment and better protect biodiversity through land clean-up known in the industry as ‘brownfields' remediation.

The potential to redevelop the wastelands at Homebush had been recognised in 1973 when the concept of urban renewal was gaining ground. Some redevelopment was completed for the 1988 Bicentenary and a few years later, the Rio Declaration drew world attention to another key environmental issue, sustainability. The Declaration marked a turning point in environmental awareness and influenced the flavour of the 1993 Olympic bid, providing a solid foundation to support the ‘Environmental Games’. The lands at Homebush were nominated as the main venue.

Remediation at the Homebush site

The ‘Big Clean Up’ rehabilitated 180 hectares of land degraded by the dumping of more than nine million tonnes of waste. For further information visit Remediated Lands Management - Sydney Olympic Park.

Remediation director, John Pym brought a new approach, choosing to retain all wastes on site rather than transfer the problem elsewhere. His policy was to minimise the total area of contamination and provide safe confinement on site. Buried wastes were extracted from wetlands and waterways and re-located to on-site consolidated waste mounds. Drains to capture leachate were installed and the leachate treated at a nearby facility. The mounds were capped and landscaped, transformed into the bold landforms and forming part of the spectacular Homebush Olympic site.

Pym used the expertise of engineers, scientists, ecologists and designers and included the community in his vision of sustainable development. He championed a special project known as the Enhanced Remediation Strategy aimed to ensure that both the technical and community legacy of the ‘Green Games’ was secured for the benefit of Sydney people and their environment.

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Commercial-Government Partnerships

The remediation sites at Rhodes Peninsula were developed for high-rise residential living and form part of the new community at Rhodes. The pathway to development was however a challenge for all concerned.

The Meriton Site (former Allied Feeds Site)

Between 1991 and 2001, the Meriton site at the northern end of the Peninsula, was owned by Bankers Trust/Pendal Nominees. In 1997, a partnership was announced to redevelop the site and clean up Homebush Bay. Bankers Trust was to put in $15 million and the owner of the Bay sediments, the Office of Marine Administration, was to contribute $22 million. The proposed project was to be completed by December 1999, 10 months before the 2000 Olympic Games. This proposal did not go ahead. In 2001, Bankers Trust sold the site to Meriton Apartments, an experienced Sydney-based property developer. Meriton Apartments was required to manage the remediation of the site and its subsequent development.

The Waterways NSW Site (former Union Carbide/Lednez site) and Homebush Bay

This site was remediated and developed as a commercial-government partnership between Maritime NSW (Office of Marine Administration and later Waterways NSW) and the development consortium, Trafalgar Corporate. Maritime NSW was the government agency that owned the site, having bought it in 1999 for $1 from a shelf company owned by Union Carbide. The purchase allowed the government to continue with its plans for clean-up, for which it pledged $20 million.

1999 was a crucial year for everyone participating in the area’s development due to the influence of preparation for the Olympic Games on the other side of Homebush Bay. The original Olympics development zone actually included the Rhodes Peninsula as well as Homebush Bay, however this was later changed to exclude these areas. It was considered a sensible decision at the time as there was no possibility that these contaminated areas could have been remediated prior to the Games in the time that was available. However, the Sydney Olympics created the momentum for the clean-up to occur, and people did not wish to see the opportunity lost.

Groups and individuals who had participated in the community consultation forum for the Olympic clean-up; the Homebush Bay Environmental Reference Group (HBERG), enviro-non-government organisations and local councils, were concerned about re-consideration of the commitment to the clean-up and insisted that a guarantee be provided. Media interest in the Green Games was intense and a high level of confidence in remediation had to be maintained. A promise of clean-up was given to enviro-non-government organisations in 1999, and further consultation about the remediation program relating to the entire Rhodes Peninsula began in late 2001.

The commercial-government partnership to clean up the site and Bay sediments went ahead but there were challenges. Commercial interests needed to get on with their core business and build apartment blocks and felt the pressures imposed by the 2008 global economic crisis. The remediation contractor, Thiess Services, had to observe strict compliance with Environment Protection Authority (EPA) license conditions and, at the same time, try to keep to the contract schedule. There were inevitable delays and consequent pressure to allow construction of apartments on areas that had been cleaned up to the satisfaction of the site auditor despite remediation activities still occurring on adjoining sites. Some areas were sold on to other developers while remediation continued nearby.

The commercial-government partnership relating to remediation of the Rhodes Peninsula was finalised on Wednesday, 4 May 2011, with remediation being completed and Thiess Services leaving the site. The overall cost of remediation of the Rhodes Peninsula is reported to have cost around $200 million.

Pre-cleanup assesment process

In 2002-2003, a Commission of Inquiry looked into the proposed remediation of the former Union Carbide (Lednez) site and the sediments of Homebush Bay. The Commission was established under Section 119 (1) of the Environmental and Planning Assessment Act, 1979. At that time, this site was owned by Maritime NSW, the government agency that also owned the Homebush Bay sediments and was responsible for their clean-up. The sites were being developed under State Regional Environmental Plan No. 29 (Rhodes Peninsula). This entire area was already undergoing rapid urban re-development, as was nearby land at Sydney Olympic Park. 

The Commission of Inquiry was directed to investigate all the environmental aspects of the proposed clean-up projects, including the protection of human health during and after clean-up as well as future recreational uses of the site and the Bay. Written submissions were received and at the hearings, people from government, industry, various environmental organisations and individuals provided their views. The NSW Government was represented by officials from the Department of Health and Urban and Transport Planning, as well as the Waterways Authority and the Environment Protection Authority (EPA). The Nature Conservation Council of NSW and the Sydney Harbour and Foreshores Committee attended as did the Site Auditor, the Technical Adviser to the Community Liaison Group and several individuals from Rhodes and neighbouring suburbs. The proponent was represented by his own staff as well as specialists in risk assessment, air quality and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) destruction technology. Council attended in a limited capacity, given that the State Government had taken the lead role and the fact that Council was not the Consent Authority for the area.

Identified areas of concern 

The identified areas of concern included:

  • The technology to be used.
  • The air pollution and noise that would be generated.
  • The potential for conflict between remediation and adjacent residential development.
  • Future health risks if there was disturbance of deeper soils that contained residual contamination.
  • The fate of the existing recreational fishing ban.
  • The need for ongoing monitoring after remediation.
  • The level of remediation of sediments needed to ensure safety of recreational users of the bay.

Remediation recommendations for the Rhodes Peninsula

To address these concerns, the Commissioner made fifty eight recommendations (Commission of Inquiry - Recommendations) describing them as “comprehensive but necessary to ensure a high level of protection for human health and the environment.”

In December 2003 he wrote to the then Minister of Infrastructure & Planning and Natural Resources, Hon.Craig Knowles MP (Remediation recommendations letter), noting that remediation was essential to protect human health now and in the future and recommended that the Department of Planning, (then known as DIPNR), “in consultation with the EPA, take a lead role in coordinating the planned development” of Rhodes, through the instrument known as the Sydney Regional Environmental Plan (SREP) No. 29. This was to “ensure co-operation between developers, consistent environmental management and timely development of the area, particularly in relation to the application of best practice air quality and noise management across site boundaries and to ensure cumulative impacts were minimised.” 

The Minister used the recommendations as the basis of his Development Consent for the Lednez site remediation, given in May 2004. It took another year before the remediation works started.

What is risk assesment

Risk assessment clarifies industry’s potential to cause harm and provides guidance on how to reduce risk. Techniques to monitor emissions have improved and there is more rigour in the way risks are calculated. Today, risk assessment is accepted by government and used by industry to plan safe and effective land clean up. It uses scientific data and investigation techniques to make predictions based on available knowledge.

There are four basic steps:

  1. Identifying the chemicals present and establishing what is known about their health hazards.
  2. Working out the “dose-response” relationship: how much chemical is needed to produce adverse health effects?
  3. Working out the dose received: how much chemical could people absorb?
  4. Defining the risk. If a chemical can cause cancer or other health risks, is there a level below where exposure is not harmful?

Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)

In 2002, in preparation for the POPs remediation at Rhodes, two Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) were prepared - Remediation of Lednez Site, Rhodes and Homebush Bay, December 2002 Report (Large file size - 16.47MB). It included a Human Health Risk Assessment about air quality and explored the potential for harm if people were exposed to airborne chemicals from the clean-up. It evaluated how much pollution could be created, worked out where it would go and assessed the health risks involved. Chemicals were screened for risk and then a site-specific assessment was done to get more information.

The study found that the people most at risk lived to the east of the clean-up sites and that volatile chemicals called PAHs would be the major contributor to lifetime cancer risk. The greatest exposure would occur during excavation of contaminated soils. The risk of cancer from exposure was however found to be negligible and was deliberately calculated for a scenario where there were no controls in place. The risk assessor took the worst-case scenario to make his assessments and recommended dust and odour controls.

Pre-cleanup regulatory framework

The legal framework

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Planning NSW and local councils have duties to manage contaminated lands. Local Government can manage sites that are contaminated but still usable, provided there are controls in place. As such, the City of Canada Bay did not have a role in the control of remediation on the Rhodes Peninsula. The main instruments of control at Rhodes were the “Conditions of Consent” relating to the approval for remediation, and EPA Licenses, imposed by State Government.

State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP) 55

SEPP 55 is a state-wide planning policy that deals with the remediation of land. The policy aims to promote the remediation of contaminated land for the purpose of reducing the risk of harm to human health or any other aspect of the environment by:

  • Specifying when consent is and is not required for remediation work.
  • Specifying certain considerations that are relevant in rezoning land and in determining development applications for consent to carry out remediation work.
  • Requiring that remediation work meets certain standards and notification requirements.

Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Powers

In 1997, the NSW Government changed the law so that contaminated sites could be better managed. Prior to this time, the Environmentally Hazardous Chemicals Act 1985 had controlled contaminated sites. The new Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 focused on sites where contamination posed a risk to human health, the environment, or both. It applied the ‘polluter pays’ principle and placed responsibility for notification about land contamination on any person who knew about it. The Act also empowered the EPA to accredit site auditors who, once remediation was completed, could issue a Site Audit Statement, confirming the suitability of the use of the site. For example, the auditor may determine that a site is suitable for the proposed use such as high density residential housing or recreational open space.

The Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 enabled Government to regulate activities in an integrated way and control impacts in the construction and operating phases of a clean-up project. The Act defines environmental performance standards for the transport of waste and the treatment of contaminated soil. The Environmentally Hazardous Chemicals Act 1985 establishes chemicals policy and provides the EPA with powers to assess and control chemicals which pose a hazard to the environment. The Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), chemicals that contaminated parts of the Rhodes Peninsula and Homebush Bay, were regulated under this Act.

In December 2008, an amendment to the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 was passed, strengthening the ‘polluter pays’ principle so that those responsible for damaging the environment bear the cost of remediation. The amendments gave new powers to order an investigation and streamline the process between investigation and remediation of a contaminated site. 

New Program to Harmonise Remediation Frameworks

The evolution of pollution and remediation law is ongoing, influenced by changes in science, technology and social values. In 2011, a program to develop a national approach to remediation was initiated. Entitled the National Remediation Framework, it is being developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE). Government, industry, scientific and community interests are represented. This national initiative does not replace State Government powers to control pollution but aims to update and harmonise guidance documents and deliver an acceptable national remediation framework.

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Pre-cleanup environmental and social concerns

By the mid-1980s, there was awareness about pollution at the Union Carbide site and Homebush Bay but there was little information available. It was the beginning of a new era of pollution control. Information from government agencies and consumer groups abroad started to become known to the public arena and the community became concerned. They heard that pesticides caused cancer and birth defects and industrial chemicals could pollute soils, sediment and groundwater. Nature too, could be harmed and fish could become so contaminated that they became unsafe to eat.

In the late 1980s, the Sydney-based Total Environment Centre gained limited access to information about the dioxin contamination of Homebush Bay and by the early 1990s, there was enough scientific information to support credible public concern about the pollution of the area: (Dioxin contamination of sediment and marine fauna in Homebush Bay - A report by Norman Rubinstein and John Wicklund for the State Pollution Control Commission, January 1991). 

With the success of the 1993 Olympic bid, concern shifted to human health. Chemical exposure was in the spotlight and when the Games were over, concern about pollution at Rhodes re-emerged as a public issue. The NSW Greens and environmental groups had a long-standing interest in both land remediation and urban renewal and pushed for a Government inquiry into the clean-up and redevelopment of the area. 

In 2002, the Parliament’s Standing Committee on State Development convened its inquiry. It looked into the safety of the remediation, the suitability of the development and the quality of community consultation. There were many submissions and overall, the community was not opposed to the project, but wanted to ensure that it was going to be done properly. Enviro-NGOs did not favour such a large scale development and were well across broader issues, including compliance with international treaties and variation in clean up standards. The range of concerns expressed in submissions included:

  • Density of the development
  • Transport and traffic delays
  • Lack of educational facilities, open space and organised recreation
  • Traffic noise on Concord Road and overall local amenity
  • Clean up criteria, standards and techniques
  • Protection of nearby residents
  • Development and remediation going on at the same time
  • Protection of Homebush Bay wetlands and migratory bird habitat, maintenance of fishing ban and post clean-up monitoring
  • Conflict of Interest; i.e. the Government was the planner, the land-owner and the regulator.  

The Inquiry delivered its findings on 27 June, 2002 and made 33 recommendations.

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The City of Canada Bay's role

In November 2003, the first site known as the Allied Feeds or Meriton site, at the northern end of the Rhodes Peninsula, was approved for remediation. Three months later, a total of nine development applications followed, seeking approval to build 1270 residential apartments in other parts of the Peninsula still to be remediated. There was also an application to construct public infrastructure and embellish open space on the same land. 18 months passed before remediation commenced on the Meriton site. During this period, the other two sites were also approved for remediation - the former Union Carbide site and the site of the eastern part of Homebush Bay where significant sediment contamination had been identified. From the outset, it was clear that there would be some overlap between the processes of remediation and development.

At the time, it was uncertain as to how development and remediation activities occurring concurrently would interact and how impacts would be managed. Occupants of newly-constructed apartments would be living quite close (in some cases less than 70 metres) to remediation activities. A common view was that remediation should have been required to be completed before residential development was allowed to proceed.

The scale of remediation was significant with the process subject to detailed scrutiny from both regulators and the community. The ‘remediator’ on all three sites, Thiess Services, faced many pressures due to the size and complexity of the project. Added to this was external pressure from developers who were keen to start development as soon as a site auditor had validated an area, as they were experiencing high holding costs for the land.

In 2007, the City of Canada Bay was re-instated as the Consent Authority for Rhodes. From this point on, Council staff were fully involved in the management of the area, often involving and helping to resolve competing interests. Although there was no disagreement about the need to protect health, there were occasions when the projects stalled, due to plant break-downs, and as a result, developers experienced frustrating delays. When things went wrong, Council was often in the front line, fielding calls from concerned residents and having to play a liaison role until others took the appropriate action. Council also continued to advocate for adequate information to be provided to residents, so that anyone with particular sensitivities could make an informed decision about living or working in the area.

Council embraced its new level of control over the rapidly developing Rhodes Peninsula and took its responsibility for the building of a new community seriously. Council investigated creative ways to address identified gaps in both physical and social infrastructure which had resulted from the greater focus being placed on remediation earlier in the planning process.

Council staff attended the monthly Thiess-run Rhodes Community Consultative Committee (RCCC) meetings, which dealt specifically with the remediation process, as well as running the more general bi-monthly Rhodes Community Reference Group (RCRG) meetings, where residents could raise issues, talk to Council staff and obtain information about new developments. Developers and other stakeholders also attended these meetings occasionally, which gave residents the opportunity to ask specific questions about certain developments. The deficiencies of the area were often the topic of discussion as well as the possibility of how better outcomes could be achieved.

Council’s review of the planning controls in the area ultimately resulted in a new proposal under the Rhodes West Stage One MasterPlan (2010), which involved partnerships between Council and developers as part of Voluntary Planning Agreements permissible under current planning legislation. 

Developers agreed to fund a bigger and improved community centre, new open space areas and a range of additional infrastructure. In return, the developers were able to build up to 25 stories on certain sites and approximately 500 additional units. Although there was some opposition to this change from the community, on balance, a more diverse urban form was seen to be acceptable, given that similar and higher buildings had already been built in Sydney Olympic Park on the other side of Homebush Bay. The public benefits delivered to the community through the new proposal were also considered to be a positive.

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