Citation: This article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Making pollution data available on the internet', Engineers Australia, February 2000, p. 60.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

A tall copper smelter stack dominates the Port Kembla skyline. When the old copper smelter closed a few years ago, the local community breathed a sigh of relief. Bad practices, including the smelting of scrap copper, plastic coatings and all, had meant that the emissions from the stack were particularly noxious. Residents had suffered the health effects for years but because it is a working class area where housing prices are depressed they had been unable to sell up and buy elsewhere.

Naturally, when a new copper smelter was proposed the residents fought it bitterly. As is always the case when residents oppose noxious facilities in their neighbourhoods, they were labelled NIMBY's (Not In My Back Yard). However, the merits of their case against the new smelter were never given their day in court. Special legislation from the NSW government prevented that. Port Kembla Copper (PKC) was given development consent in 1996.

When load based licensing is introduced later this year, the company will be allowed to emit up to 6300 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 588 tonnes of sulphur trioxide from the main and acid plant stacks each year, as well as up to 24 tonnes of toxic emissions (antimony, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury) from the main stack each year. This 24 tonnes can include up to 11.5 tonnes of cadmium and 11.5 tonnes of arsenic.(EPA letter dated 6 August 1996.)

The prevailing northeast winds in the summer months cause the smelter emissions to blow over the nearby residential area including a primary school which is only a few hundred metres away. Arsenic in the air can cause lung cancer and cadmium in the air can cause kidney damage, as well as bioaccumulating in the environment. Concentrations of cadmium and arsenic only have to be self-monitored by the company once every 3 months.

In November 1995 the NH&MRC reduced its recommended maximum permissible levels of sulphur dioxide in ambient air to 250 ppb for a ten minute average. The NH&MRC notes "CAUTION: At these levels, there still may be some people (for example, asthmatics and those suffering chronic lung disease) who will experience respiratory symptoms and may need further medical advice or medication". During commissioning of the smelter, the average levels of sulphur dioxide are not allowed to exceed 500 ppb averaged over a ten minute period at the primary school "except for incidents which reasonably could not have been minimised or prevented by the licensee". (Variation of Licence, 29 December 1999)

But the copper smelter is not the only industry that local residents have to worry about. Port Kembla is a heavy industry area. Close to the smelter, there is the BHP steel works which emits dioxin and benzene amongst other chemicals and a sewage treatment plant emits hydrogen sulphide.

The residents of Port Kembla have more than their fair share of health risks from industrial facilities. The community has already suffered a leukemia cluster of unknown cause (see The New Engineer, March 1999). But to add insult to injury they are not given the information they need to deal with these risks. Their request to have full monitoring information from the smelter quickly available on the internet has been turned down. The EPA insists that it also would like this but has been unable to negotiate it with Port Kembla Copper management. The Environmental Manager at Port Kembla Copper, says they  intend to have summary data available on the internet, perhaps updated every two months. The daily publication of monitoring information would have to be reviewed at some future date.

Last month, residents started tasting sulphur. (Sulphur dioxide can be tasted at about 200 ppb) Of course they immediately suspected the copper smelter which is being commissioned. However, without monitoring information they could not know. The EPA assured them that the weather conditions made the sewage treatment works a more likely source. 

It is only fair that residents who are exposed to the emissions of industry have direct and easy access to monitoring data as it becomes available from all the plants in the vicinity. The best way for this large amount of data to be made available in a cost effective manner is for each polluter to publish a web site with detailed monitoring information, updated daily. Perhaps the EPA should begin specifying this as a requirement in pollution licences.