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By Jonathan J. Ariel - posted Friday, 19 August 2011

The Newcastle Herald reported that last Monday's 6:15 pm leak of hexavalent chromium, at Orica's plant in Stockton, NSW near Newcastle, took its management 30 minutes to stop and a further 16 hours to notify state authorities.

It took two more days before NSW Minister for the Environment, Robyn Parker advised the NSW Parliament, which is when the residents living near the chemical plant first knew of the crisis. Parker ordered a review of the current obligations of industry to immediately notify authorities of pollution incidents that threaten to cause harm.

One week on, NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell spoke for many when he criticized Orica's delay in notifying authorities (let alone residents) of a leak of a known carcinogen. The delay was very poor form even if wasn't illegal.


But Orica's unhurried behaviour wouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the firm. Heck, Orica takes health and safety matters so seriously that its own web site trumpets that "safety" related emails are checked once a week! Yes, once a week!

How reassuring for the residents living downwind from Orica's Kooragang Island plant.

What was missing and remains missing from the mainstream media's coverage of events is that in the future, the good people of Stockton (or their descendants) may test positive for cancer, thanks to this leak.

Nobody should be surprised.

Orica, after all is the successor to Imperial Chemical Industries, a company with less than stellar environmental credentials, which in 1992 made the Friends of the Earth list of factories and chemical plants with the 100 largest permits to pour toxic chemicals down the sewers of England and Wales. Accompanying ICI on that list was BP (the folk best known for the multi-billion dollar Gulf of Mexico's Deepwater Horizon disaster). Unsurprisingly, Orica's current Chief Executive, Graeme Liebelt, was formerly head of marketing for Philip Morris, one of Big Tobacco's "big three" purveyors of emphysema.

Stockton's residents and their health care providers must be courageous in taking their parliamentarians and Orica's management to task as they search to understand what happened, why it happened and what health and economic ramifications are in store for them.


There are several matters residents must prioritise. Here is a shortlist in no particular order.

Orica promises that everything that must be cleaned up will be cleaned up. It has even set itself deadlines, but is Orica being directed and supervised by a state agency, or is it for Orica to assess and address its own potentially hazardous activity? Also on the matter of "addressing", how will Orica tackle sliding property values in the area - no doubt factored in by future homebuyers after the leak was widely publicized.

Was the leak on 8th August the first leak of hexavalent chromium at the plant? Or the first widely reported leak? And what are the health implications given hexavalent chromium is recognized as a human carcinogen when it is inhaled? Chronic inhalation has been shown to increase risk of lung cancer and may also damage the small capillaries in kidneys and intestines.

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About the Author

Jonathan J. Ariel is an economist and financial analyst. He holds a MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management. He can be contacted at

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