Simon Corbell’s office have sent through his ministerial statement from Monday on the Mitchell fire which has some detail, not much of it reassuring, about what we were all breathing on Friday as the PCB processing plant in the middle of the city blazed away.
You really need to read the whole thing. Here it is:
I want to give Members an account of last week’s serious chemical fire in Mitchell and then outline how the Government and its agencies are responding to ensure the continuing safety of the Canberra community and the health of its environment.
I do so to demonstrate this Government’s commitment to transparency and accountability and to ensure that reliable and up-to-date information is readily available to the public.
I will provide subsequent advice to the Assembly as necessary.
Just after 11.00pm on Thursday 15 September 2011 ACT Fire Brigade attended at a fire at the Energy Services Invironmental site on Dacre Street, Mitchell.
This facility is a privately owned and operated transformer oil PCB dechlorination and recycling plant.
PCB is the common term for the chemical, Polychlorinated Biphenyl. PCBs are injurious to human health and are persistent pollutants of the environment. Imports of PCBs to Australia have been banned since 1986.
However, PCBs were widely used as an insulating fluid inside electrical transformers and ESI treats that fluid to remove and destroy the PCBs so that the oil can be recycled. Some of the chemical reagents used in this process are also dangerous. This means the company requires a number of approvals to operate.
I shall return to the regulation of this facility later.
The fire was fuelled by the dangerous substances on the site and this restricted the ability of fire-fighters to aggressively attack the fire. There was also considerable concern that the smoke plume from the fire was potentially toxic.
For this reason the Fire Brigade commenced and continued atmospheric sampling at appropriate locations around the fire.
Heavy smoke, followed by a series of explosions on the site caused the
ACT Fire Brigade to pull back for the protection of fire-fighters. This allowed a reassessment of the fire and the marshalling of resources ensuring a concentration of fire fighting efforts to contain the fire while planning for an effective solution.
ACT fire-fighters continued to contain the fire throughout the night while the incident management team operating from Fairbairn HQ and the unified command on the scene planned a comprehensive attack strategy to be implemented over the next eight hours.
The potential toxicity of the smoke plume resulted in a decision by the unified command team on the scene to evacuate Exhibition Park in Canberra. Campers at Exhibition Park were evacuated to a centre established at Dickson College. Premises operating in Mitchell overnight were also evacuated.
In the early hours of Friday morning an emergency alert system warning, using the Emergency Alert telephone based warning system, was issued to Canberra residents within a 10 kilometre radius of the fire, to stay indoors and turn off air conditioners.
Based on the results of the atmospheric testing, the area of concern was later reduced. However, because of fears for the safety of members of the public, Mitchell, including major roads through the suburb, was closed.
The fire was brought under control at approximately 10.00pm on Friday 15 September. Concerns about the impact of the fire and the potential for contamination by chemical toxins resulted in a decision to keep Mitchell closed for the weekend.
Final extinguishment of the fire was achieved at 10.00am on Saturday 17th after a strategic attack mounted between 4.00pm and 6.00pm on Friday evening and dealing with a flare up overnight at approximately 4.00am.
All available class foam supplies in the ACT were utilised with the support of Aviation Firefighting and suppliers, while additional supplies were sourced interstate.
At the peak of the fire, eleven Fire Brigade units, including HAZMAT and aerial vehicles, and over 50 personnel attended the scene.
ACT Policing provided road blocks to the Mitchell area which was closed to all traffic and all persons were evacuated. Police also advised people in adjacent areas that they may need to be evacuated depending on the direction and severity of the smoke plume. ACT Policing were also an integral part of the unified command team at Mitchell.
Atmospheric monitoring commenced as part of the ACT Fire Brigade initial response. Hazmat crews monitored the atmosphere throughout the 48 hour firefight and continued to support the Environment Protection Authority thereafter.
Fire and Rescue New South Wales HAZMAT response was also activated in accordance with cross border arrangements. A hazmat crew were responded by helicopter from Sydney, while two fire trucks were dispatched to Queanbeyan for use in responding with ACTFB to daily business across the Territory.
The EPA was on-site early Friday morning. Its initial focus was to seek to prevent potential contaminants from entering the environment, particularly the stormwater system. Temporary earth bunding was put in place along waterways.
Once the fire was contained the EPA, in collaboration with experts from the NSW EPA, set up a comprehensive sampling regime. Multiple samples were taken from soil, water, air and residue in and around Mitchell, through the likely affected waterways and under the plume trail across the ACT and adjacent parts of NSW.
Those samples were then transported to the NSW EPA’s environmental chemical analysis laboratory in Lidcombe. This facility is specialist, expert and experienced and utilises internationally accredited analytical techniques.
Samples were tested against these standards for a number of factors, especially the presence of organic chemicals and heavy metals.
These two categories of substances effectively cover the chemicals known to have been in the factory as well as likely products of the combustion and recombination of those chemicals.
The results for the factory site and the surrounding parts of Mitchell were received Sunday evening and all were negative (that is they contained no traces of chemical toxins). This is consistent with the fact that the fire burned at very high temperatures.
Of course, the EPA is not suggesting there was no pollution emanating from the fire. The area in and around the fire contains amounts of residue, ash and other remnants of fire-fighting material. However, the testing is conclusive that it poses no threat to human life or the environment.
ACT Health, based on the results of this testing, concluded that risk to the health of people in this area from chemicals released in the fire is low.
On this basis, the Incident Controller for the recovery phase decided on Sunday evening to reduce the Mitchell exclusion zone to the area immediately surrounding the fire (that is, Dacre, Tooth and Pelle Streets).
To further reduce the very low risk posed by any material deposited by the fire, ACT Health issued information for people returning to Mitchell. This is a series of simple precautions designed to avoid accidental exposure (including such things as washing hands after cleaning premises, washing any food left in the open).
People were also advised that if they encountered any unfamiliar ash, liquid or solid material at their premises they should contact Canberra Connect who would put them in touch with the EPA.
The remaining exclusion zone is necessary because of the extensive presence of a residue which does not pose a significant human health hazard, but which can best be cleaned up under the supervision of the EPA. Once this is completed access back into that area, except for a site around the factory and its immediate environs (determined by the Fire Brigade) will be allowed.
The EPA is now focused on three key tasks:
• analysis of the remainder of the test results (once they have been completed by the Lidcombe laboratory) to allow any further necessary environmental protection or remediation measures are put in place;
• clean-up of the fire site itself to ensure that it is no longer a potential source of contamination;
• clean up of other areas, especially the bunded ponds and affected waterways.
The last task is already underway. Liquid and solid waste is being removed by expert and appropriately authorised contractors to secure sites from where it will eventually be remediated and then properly disposed of under strict conditions.
EPA will continue to monitor the impact of the incident on the environment over the long term and will use the coercive powers under the Environment Protection Act to ensure that the owner meets its obligation in relation to the restoration and clean up after the incident.
Temporary bunding will remain in place until clean ups are complete.
Again, reflecting this Government’s commitment to transparency I have asked the EPA to put all the final test results and associated information, along with contextual advice, on its website as soon as is practible.
Let me now turn to the planning and regulation of this facility.
The first point I want to make is that this is the only hazardous chemical processing facility of its type in the ACT.
On 28 March 2008, Development Application No 200801261 for the proposed waste oil recycling facility with associated offices and storage areas at Block 15 Section 22 Mitchell was lodged with the ACTPLA.
The application reflected the company’s move from old premises in Mitchell to a state of the art factory with superior environmental safeguards than the original.
The site is located in the IZ1 – General Industry Zone under the 2008 Territory Plan.
At the time of lodging the DA the 2002 Territory Plan identified the site as Precinct ‘a’ General Industry Precinct of Part B3 Industrial Land Use Policies. The development is defined under the Territory Plan as a ‘Hazardous Waste Facility’.
Hazardous waste facility means the use of land for the collection, storage, treatment or disposal of hazardous waste.
Hazardous Waste Facility is a permitted use in the IZ1 – General Industry Zone.
The application was lodged prior to the Planning and Development Act having effect. As such the application was assessed in accordance with all the relevant requirements of the Land (Planning and Environment) Act .
The characteristics of the proposal were such that it fell under the list of prescribed classes of defined decisions in Appendix II of the Territory Plan that required a mandatory Preliminary Assessment, that is, ‘any proposal involving the disposal, storage, transfer of hazardous chemicals/substances’.
The final PA was submitted to ACTPLA in June 2008.
The PA and the DA were publicly notified in the Canberra Times on Saturday 28 June 2008 and by Notifiable Instrument on the Legislation Register in accordance with the Part 4 of the Land Act.
No written representations were received.
Consultation with relevant agencies, including the EPA, was undertaken.
In accordance with the requirements of Section 121 (2) of the Land Act consideration by ACTPLA was given to the PA to determine whether further environmental impact assessment is required.
The PA was found to have adequately identified the range of possible impacts of the proposal on the physical, natural and human environments.
As a result of this evaluation, it was decided that no further assessment was required for the proposed development.
The DA was approved subject to conditions on 26 September 2008. Condition 3(e) required the DA applicant to lodge a statement clarifying that the equipment proposed to be used in the new development was identical to that tested in the Preliminary Assessment.
A statement dated 12 October 2008 was submitted by ESI to verify that the existing equipment and storage tanks (being MRP5000 oil regeneration plant and PCB de-chlorination plants) were relocated to the new site. In other words, the already approved and tested equipment used to process the waste oil in the original factory was relocated to the new premises.
As they are obliged to, ESI currently hold an environmental authorisation under Section 41A of the Environment Protection Act.
The conditions contained in the authorisation were developed in consultation with the then Commissioner for the Environment and other environment protection authorities, to minimise the risks associated with treating hazardous waste and to provide for sound environmental outcomes.
A clear environmental advantage of the treatment process is that it removes and renders safe the PCB while not destroying the de-chlorinated oil which is then able to be reused in the electrical network.
Before the authorisation was issued, the EPA undertook background checks on ESI. The company was incorporated in the ACT in March 2002 with the purchase of the Oil Services Section of Energy Services International.
A copy of the authorisation is available on the Environment and Sustainable Development website. The authorisation indicates that the facility is located in Winchcombe Court, Mitchell. As already noted, the facility has moved to Dacre Street, Mitchell.
The authorisation relates to the chemical storage and processing and the conditions in the factory. EPA staff have based their decisions, including their reviews, on inspections of the correct premises.
The EPA undertakes annual reviews of this authorisation. The most recent review, conducted in accordance with the requirements of section 57(1) of the Environment Protection Act, covered the period 4 April 2010 to 3 April 2011.
It was completed in May 2011.
This review conducted determined that ESI was operating in accordance with the requirements of their authorisation. However, the EPA did request ESI to update its Hazop Plan, the water management plan and the waste management plan.
The EPA has been working with ESI to assist them in meeting this request.
Consistent with the conditions of the environmental authorisation, the facility is operated in accordance with the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council Polychlorinated Biphenyl Management Plan.
All PCB waste coming into the ACT must be transported in accordance with the National Environment Protection Measure for the movement of wastes between states and territories.
The EPA has dealt with ESI around potential breaches of its authorisation on three occasions.
The ACT Fire Brigade responded to a fire on 12 February 2005 at the Winchcombe Court site. The fire was limited to a transformer which was connected to equipment that reclaimed residual oil from the transformer. Following an initial review by the EPA an infringement notice under the Environment Protection Act was issued.
An environmental infringement notice was issued to ESI on 11 July 2005 for the minor offence of waste within 10 metres of a drain or entry to the stormwater system.
A warning letter was issued to ESI in January 2011 for transporting and accepting a controlled waste for disposal/storage at the facility without a valid consignment authorization. This was due to an administrative oversight by the waste producer (that is, not ESI). A warning letter was also sent to the waste producer.
The Dangerous Substances Act and the Dangerous Substances (General) Regulations 2004 contain specific requirements for certain premises, plant or systems to be registered, or notified [not licensed] under the regulation.
The person in control of the premises must notify the Chief Executive (Director General) if they “handle” a ‘placard quantity’ of any dangerous substance.
A placard quantity of a dangerous substance can be as little as 50L/kg or as great as 5000L/kg, depending on class of substance.
Once a premises has a placard quantity of a dangerous substance, whether that be of a single class of dangerous substance or a mixed class of substances, the Director General must then be notified of all other dangerous substances on the premises.
A register of each dangerous substance must be kept at the premises and be readily accessible. The Register must be accompanied by a current Safety Data Sheet for each substance.
ESI was previously located at Winchcombe Court Mitchell and had registered these premises with WorkSafe ACT in accordance with this provision. The new premises at Dacre Street in Mitchell have not been registered by ESI in accordance with the requirements of the DS Act and Regulations.
ESI had been made aware, when registering its previous premises, of its obligation to revise the registration should circumstances such as changes in quantity or location occur.
Workcover had been made aware by ESI’s architects that the company was planning to relocate its premises.
Workcover reminded the architects of the advice to ESI that the substances held at any new premises would need to be notified as a new registration. No subsequent registration was received and no follow-up was conducted by Workcover.
The primary purpose of registration is to ensure that information is available to emergency services in the case of an incident. To this end, the business is also required to have such information – a manifest – available in a place (kept in a red weatherproof container inside and as close as practicable to the main entrance) that can be readily accessed by emergency services.
Initial advice at this stage from the Fire Brigade is that emergency services were able to quickly access this information on site on the night of the fire. The exact circumstances surrounding this issue will be covered in the WorkSafe investigation into the incident.
Over a period since early 2005, there have been a 5 incidents in which WorkSafe ACT (and its predecessor Workcover) has been involved with ESI.
These five incidents include a small fire and a small explosion occurring in 2005 and 2006. A chemical spill occurred in 2009. All these matters were attended to by WorkSafe ACT. All these incidents occurred at the previous premises of the company.
Inspectors from WorkSafe ACT (and its predecessor ACT Workcover) managed these issues with ESI at the time, issuing notices and requiring improvements in systems and processes in line with the legal requirements.
An outcome of the 2009 visit to the former site was that WorkSafe reviewed the ESI Environment, Health and Safety Management Plan and noted that the company was, as is appropriate when such complex operations are involved, in the process of reviewing its standard operating procedures and OHS requirements.
There are three separate investigations of the incident underway or soon to be underway.
WorkSafe will undertake an investigation of this incident. The EPA will also conduct an investigation under its statutory powers. The ACT Police and ACT Fire Brigade will jointly prepare a report for the Coroner.
All these investigations are independent of the Government and their terms of reference and conduct are matters for the relevant authorities.
WorkSafe will examine questions such as whether the manifest was complete and whether it complied in all other ways with legislative requirements will be determined by the WorkSafe investigation into this incident.
Similarly, there is conflicting advice at this stage as to whether appropriate placarding was in place and this will also be examined by the WorkSafe investigators.
A more thorough consideration will be given to WorkSafe’s compliance response to the registration issues identified above. This may include:
• examination of the Dangerous Substances Register as a matter of priority
• identification of sites with any similar substances and, if necessary, in concert with other appropriate regulatory bodies, a review of the management of dangerous substances at those sites
• identification of any sites which have failed to renew their registration and determination of whether this has happened for appropriate reasons or whether re-registration should occur
• implementation of an ongoing process to identify and notify sites where registration will expire in the near future
• consideration of whether all registered sites should be reminded again [this already occurs at the point of registration] of their obligations under the Dangerous Substances Act and associated regulations.
This incident has raised a number of questions in the community in relation to planning policies and regulations as they relate to the location of hazardous industries in relatively close proximity to residential developments.
My commitment to ensuring a safe and secure environment for the people of the ACT means I believe these policies and practices should be examined in light of contemporary best practice used in other jurisdictions both nationally and internationally.
To that end I have instructed the Director-General of the Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate to commission an independent and expert review.
I will announce terms of reference and the identity of the independent reviewer in the near future.
I now want to address the issues around communications to the public about this incident.
Emergency Alert is a nationally coordinated telephony based warning system designed to send messages to the landline and mobile telephones of residents in a defined geographic area. The ACT is a partner in Emergency Alert and has established a capacity to use the system operationally in the ACT.
Two Emergency Alert messages were issued as a result of the incident.
The first Emergency Alert was issued at approximately 1:40am on Friday 16 September 2011. It was issued to people with registered billing addresses for mobile and landline telephones within the suburb of Mitchell including EPIC and the Canberra Racecourse.
The first voice message advised:
“Emergency. Emergency. The ACT Fire Brigade is responding to a Chemical incident in Mitchell. Residents are advised to evacuate the suburb immediately including the racecourse and EPIC. Further information is available via Canberra Connect, or go to www.esa.act.gov.au.”
The first text message advised
“Emergency. Emergency. The ACT Fire Brigade is responding to a Chemical insadent in Mitchell. Resadents are advised to evacuate the suburb immediately.”
A second Emergency Alert was issued at approximately 3:20am to people with registered billing addresses for mobile and landline telephones within the suburbs of Franklin, Crace, Harrison, Watson, Downer, Kaleen, Lyneham and Hackett.
The second voice message advised:
“The ACT Fire Brigade is responding to a chemical incident in Mitchell.
Residents of Franklin, Crace, Harrison, Watson, Downer, Kaleen, Lyneham, Hackett are advised to shelter indoors, immediately. If you are indoors, close all windows, doors, vents and turn off , air conditioning. Further information is available via Canberra Connect, or go www.esa.act.gov.au.”
The second text message advised:
“The ACT Fire Brigade responding to chemical insadent in Mitchell. Resadents of Franklin, Crace, Harrison, Watson, Downer, Kaleen, Lyneham, Hackett stay indoors.”
There has been criticism levelled at emergency authorities regarding the ambiguity of the messages issued. I am aware there were spelling errors in both messages issued via SMS and it is regrettable that this led to uncertainty regarding the origin and authenticity of the messages.
The Emergency Alert System issues warnings via voice recording and SMS, based on predefined templates for particular emergency.
The template of the voice message requires the originator to submit words in writing spelt phonetically to ensure that words will be pronounced correctly when the system automatically converts text to voice. The phonetic spelling was inadvertently also inserted into the text messages when they were issued.
On preliminary analysis it also appears there were a large number of fixed landline services identified in the target area of the second warning that were not contacted. This was a result of insufficient time being allocated to allow the Emergency Alert System to dial all of the numbers in the target area. The timing allocated is operator defined and future use of Emergency Alert will consider ensuring more time is allowed for a campaign to be completed.
These factors should not detract from the initial success of Emergency Alert. The wording and issue of any future alerts using the Emergency Alert System will be critically examined as part of the After Action Review for this incident.
Further information was provided issues giving rise to the need for through the use of social media such as Twitter, which saw a substantial growth in the number of followers of the ESA Twitter account during the event. Twitter was also used to keep news media updated on the response to the incident.
Regular updates were provided through the ESA website, which also saw a considerable increase in usage.
Local radio, television and newspapers were also engaged to partner the emergency services to provide accurate and timely messages to the community.
I want to thank the local media, particularly local radio, for their unstinting efforts in keeping the community informed throughout this incident.
Over the next few weeks operational debriefs will be conducted amongst Fire Brigade, ESA, EPA and other involved personnel. The Fire Brigade will collate all operational information and provide a post incident analysis to Government.
The fire was a complex operation which exposed members of the ACT Fire Brigade to considerable risk. The efforts of these fire-fighters to continue a sustained operation for the time period is worthy of praise from the entire ACT Community.
Fire-fighters were assisted in their efforts by many other ACT Government agencies and ACT Policing. Many of the people who participated in the response went above and beyond their normal duties to ensure, as much as was possible, the safety of the ACT public, and to limit the impact of the fire.
A carefully managed, planned response to the environmental impact of the fire was quickly put in place by the Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate, particularly through the ACT EPA, to determine the extent and concentration of any toxic material and plan a response accordingly and those staff should also receive praise for their efforts under difficult circumstances.
Special mention should be made of the extensive support from the NSW EPA, who provided assistance with monitoring and gave priority to analyse samples to support the ACT response.
Fire and Rescue NSW also provided assistance to the ACT Fire Brigade responders at Mitchell, and provided appliances on standby to cover the rest of Canberra while the fire was being fought.
Aviation Rescue and Firefighting supplied a fire fighting crew and an airport tanker as well as all of their supplies of B class foam.
Though unfortunate and serious, this incident has amply demonstrated the strengths and capabilities of the structure adopted by the Government for the co-ordination of emergency management.
In conclusion, I want to assure the Assembly, and the Canberra community, that this Government will respond to the findings of the independent investigations into this incident and make whatever changes are necessary to its policies, regulations and practices to provide a healthy and safe environment.
[Photo by Diana]