ORICA has been slapped with fines totalling more than $750,000 for seven air and water pollutions at Newcastle and Botany, including the infamous release of a carcinogenic chemical from its Kooragang Island plant over the suburb of Stockton.
Described by the Environment Protection Authority as the largest penalty issued for any of its Land and Environment Court prosecutions, Orica was ordered yesterday to pay a combined $768,250 to the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, the City of Newcastle and City of Botany Bay for environmental improvements or studies.
It will also have to publicise the convictions and pay all legal fees and investigation costs associated with the prosecution.
Orica pleaded guilty to nine charges for the seven incidents, spanning from October 2010 to December 2011, the most controversial of which was the leak of hexavalent chromium in the air over Stockton and onto some of its onsite workers on August 8, 2011.
The other incidents included discharges of nitric acid into soil and the Hunter River, and ammonium nitrate and ammonia gas, as well as an emission of mercury vapour from its Botany plant.
While there were no adverse health or environmental impacts, the leak over Stockton caused the public, the government and the media to ‘‘freak out’’, the court was told.
It also triggered furious criticisms of Orica for its 16-hour delay in reporting the incident the EPA and the O’Farrell government for taking another 54 hours to tell the public.
The company was charged with breaching its licence conditions and for failing to report a pollution incident as soon as practicable.
Justice Rachel Pepper found the incident had the ‘‘potential to cause both environmental harm and serious harm to human safety’’, and took into account the ‘‘distressing effect’’ on exposed workers and Stockton resients.
Orica’s delays in reporting the incident meant it impeded any preventative or remedial action the EPA could have taken in the immediate aftermath.
But she found there was no evidence the delay was ‘‘intentional or wilful’’, with Orica not aware of its legal obligations to report swiftly.
For the Stockton leak and reporting delay, Orica was ordered to pay $175,000 and $36,750, as a contribution for stage two of the restoration of Kooragang Dykes project, to address the deterioration of dykes in the Hunter Wetlands National Park.
Outside the court, Orica global head of manufacturing Richard Hoggards said the company regretted the incidents and more than $200 million had since been invested in the Kooragang Island plant.
‘‘What I can say today is that we’ve learnt from those incidents. Big investments [were] made at the Kooragang Island site over the last three years,’’ he said.
‘‘I can reassure locals that we have significantly changed on that site. We didn’t wait for today’s judgment.’’
Environment Protection Authority chief regulator Mark Gifford said the fines were a ‘‘significant penalty’’ and a ‘‘good result’’
Orica had changed its attitude in how it ran the Kooragang plant, he said, and laws had been tightened for pollution incidents.