Contaminated sites continue to be notified at a steady rate, but the total number of sites being regulated has decreased slightly.
As of December 2017, a total of 1,666 contaminated sites had been notified to the EPA, of which 346 required regulation. Out of these 346 sites, 158 have been remediated. Between January 2015 and December 2017, 895 sites were assessed by the EPA and there were approximately 100 sites classified as under assessment as of December 2017.
Between January 2015 and December 2017, 111 new sites were notified to the EPA. Sixteen were regulated under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 (CLM Act) and regulation was ended at 28 sites. Service stations and other petroleum industries accounted for 63% of the newly regulated sites.
Sites in the major coastal cities, particularly Sydney, are readily remediated as there is high demand for land for residential and commercial development, while there is less demand for these types of development in rural areas.
The NSW Government investigation program for emerging contaminant PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) began in February 2016. PFAS have been used in fire retardants such as foam used to put out fires, many common household products and some industrial processes.
The investigation program focuses on sites where there has been historical use of products which contain PFAS and where people’s contact with these chemicals may increase.
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Contaminated land is land where a substance (or substances) occurs at a concentration above the normal level. Exposure to some substances may affect the health of people, animals or plants, and make land unsuitable for its current or intended use.
In some cases, substances left in soils from the past continue to be toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative or present in large quantities or in combination. There is a risk that substances may move from the source of the contamination through pathways such as groundwater, resulting in increased exposure to people and the environment.
Historic land use is the main source of land contamination, for example, land used for gas works, aluminium smelters, dry cleaners or service stations.
Dealing with contaminated land is important to:
- protect human health and the environment
- enhance local amenity, for example ensuring suitable land can be used for recreation purposes such as parks and tennis courts
- make sure land is available for development.
There are more than 30,000 contaminated sites in NSW, often as the result of poor industrial chemical storage, handling and disposal practices. Many are large, complex sites that were previously used for:
- heavy industry such as gasworks or smelters
- agriculture such as dip sites, where persistent chemicals were used to treat livestock
- commercial purposes such as storage areas for chemicals used in service stations or dry cleaners.
Many former industrial areas have been, or are being, remediated and redeveloped for high-density residential and commercial uses near infrastructure, transport and jobs, such as the Green Square–Waterloo corridor in Sydney, and the Barangaroo site in Sydney.
Status and Trends
Notification of contaminated land
Landowners or land holders must notify the EPA of land that is potentially significantly contaminated. To determine whether to declare land is ‘significantly contaminated’ and therefore subject to EPA regulation, the EPA assesses:
- whether the substances have already caused harm or are toxic, persistent or bioaccumulative
- whether the substances can be transferred to human beings or features of the environment, for example, through contaminated groundwater or soils
- the current or future uses of the land and the adjoining land
- whether the substances are likely to migrate from the land (or already have migrated) (Contaminated Land Management Act 1997, section 12).
Between 1997 and 2017, approximately 1,666 sites were notified to the EPA. Of these, 111 sites were notified between January 2015 and December 2017. During the same period 895 sites were subject to assessment.
Regulation and remediation of sites
The EPA may regulate sites that are declared ‘significantly contaminated’ and require the person responsible for the contamination to remediate the land so contaminating substances do not further harm the environment or human health.
Figure 9.1 shows that the total number of remediated and regulated sites rose steadily between 2005 and 2017. Between 2015 and 2017, there were 16 newly regulated sites under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 and an additional 28 sites remediated.
Figure 9.1: Cumulative total of sites regulated under the Contaminated Land Management Act and remediated, 2005-17
Regulated sites by contamination type
Figure 9.2 shows fluctuations in the number of new sites regulated every year between 2005 and 2017.
Land declared to be significantly contaminated between 2015 and 2017 were associated with:
- service stations (44%)
- other petroleum industries (19%)
- the chemical industry (6%)
- other industry (31%).
The Protection of the Environment Operations (Underground Petroleum Storage Systems) Regulation 2014 (UPSS Regulation) addresses the historical practices that have resulted in service stations being the largest single source of contaminated land in NSW (Figure 9.2).
Figure 9.2: CLM Act newly regulated sites by contamination type, 2005–17
Figure 9.3: Proportion of newly regulated sites by contaminated type 2005–17
Based on cumulative total 2005–2017
Remediation of contaminated sites
Figure 9.4 shows that 28 sites were remediated between 2015 and 2017. The regulation of large complex sites is expensive, for example, the remediation of Barangaroo in Sydney cost approximately $100 million over seven years.
Figure 9.4: Remediation of contaminated sites, 2005–17
PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are an emerging contaminant, and research is still being undertaken to understand their long-term effects. PFAS have been used as fire retardants in fire fighting foams as well as many common household products and some industrial processes.
In 2015, the Commonwealth Department of Defence confirmed that PFAS contamination had spread from RAAF Base Williamtown. In response, the NSW Government convened the Williamtown Expert Panel, led by NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer Professor Mary O’Kane, and two working groups, to provide additional expertise and advice on health and water impacts and to propose solutions to prevent harm to the environment and human health.
The main drivers for the remediation of contaminated land in NSW are development pressure and real estate values. Sites in the major coastal cities, particularly Sydney, are readily remediated as there is high demand for land for residential and commercial development, while in rural areas there is a lower demand for these types of development.
Assessing the risk from substances contaminating land relies on information being available about specific substances and ways in which they could negatively affect human health and the environment, for example, through groundwater contamination. The extent of contamination beneath the surface is often difficult to identify and manage, so characterising the risks and costs can be challenging.
Large land remediation projects can use significant amounts of electricity and emit large quantities of greenhouse gases. Since the late 2000s, there has been a global push to embrace sustainable approaches to remediation that provide a net benefit to the environment. Consideration of the principles of ecologically sustainable development is an object of the NSW Contaminated Land Management Act 1997.
Legislation and policy
Contaminated land management framework
The NSW contaminated land management framework establishes a system that integrates environmental and planning processes and comprises two tiers:
- the regulation of significantly contaminated land under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997
- the regulation of other contaminated sites that do not pose an unacceptable risk for the current or approved use, under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and State Environmental Planning Policy No 55 - Remediation of Land (DUAP & EPA 1998).
NSW operates on the polluter pays principle, where clean-up and remediation costs must be borne by the polluter where they can be identified, or by the landowner if not.
Underground Petroleum Storage Systems regulation
The NSW Government is continuing to implement the Protection of the Environment Operations (Underground Petroleum Storage Systems) Regulation 2014 (UPSS Regulation), a key element of the EPA’s strategy to prevent contamination.
Since the introduction of the UPSS Regulation in 2009, the EPA has undertaken over 150 site inspections in response to incidents, leak notifications and general enquiries. This work has involved close consultation and joint inspections with industry stakeholders and local councils.
Figure 9.5 shows that under the UPSS compliance program, the EPA has inspected 566 sites between January 2011 and December 2017. Since the beginning of this program, stakeholders’ full compliance with the UPSS Regulation has increased, while non-compliance has decreased following initial inspections by the EPA.
Figure 9.5: UPSS Regulation compliance rates for premises the EPA has inspected between 2011 and 2017
There were significant differences in the level of compliance across the petroleum industry:
- Major fuel chains showed reasonably high levels of compliance.
- Independent and locally owned or locally operated retailers demonstrated a lower level of compliance when the EPA first inspected them. The EPA and councils are working with these retailers to help them become compliant.
- The nature of non-compliances with the UPSS Regulation shifted over time. Initially, there were deficits in infrastructure such as loss monitoring systems or leak detection systems and deficiencies in systems and procedures such as site plans and management procedures. Once the EPA detected these, service stations focused resources and time on installing leak detection and monitoring equipment and the level of compliance in these areas improved significantly.
The focus now is on ensuring systems and procedures are put in place to manage contamination risks at these sites.
The implementation of the UPSS Regulation helped:
- educate and train councils on the requirements of the Regulation
- owners and operators of UPSS throughout NSW to improve compliance with the legislation and better manage contamination risks
- assess service stations’ degree of compliance through a structured inspection program.
Reviews of contaminated land management
Between 2015 and 2017, reviews of ways in which the EPA managed contamination were held, and included an assessment of the:
- management of lead contamination due to former smelting activities in north Lake Macquarie in December 2016 (Lead Expert Working Group 2016)
- EPA’s management of contaminated sites and contamination from firefighting foams in December 2016 (Taylor and Cosenza 2016)
- EPA’s Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 Procedural Guide for EPA Officers in June 2017 (Fell and Leeder 2017).
These reviews recommended ways in which the EPA could improve its management of contaminated sites. The Government supported implementation of 76 of the 80 recommendations, which are being progressively implemented and should be completed by December 2019.
For example, the Taylor review recommended that NSW EPA should be provided with the resources needed for in-house legal counsel to support operational staff, and to establish a specialist team to undertake sampling and assessment of emerging contaminants. In November 2017 the NSW Government announced that it would be dedicating an extra $23.5 million over four years to better deal with contaminated land and implement the review recommendations.
The EPA aims to reduce the number of contaminated sites by providing information about best environmental management practices to prevent contamination. High-risk industries targeted under this program include galvanisers and UPSS sites. The EPA has worked cooperatively with stakeholders such as industry representative bodies and local councils, to ensure guidelines are comprehensive, clear and accurate. Measures implemented as part of the program include:
- site audits
- identification and sharing of best practice measures
- development and dissemination of educational materials
- liaison with industry associations.
The EPA is also undertaking a lead safety and awareness campaign targeting people such as home renovators who are at risk of being exposed to lead contamination.
An amendment to the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 in late 2008, which strengthened the duty to report contamination, resulted in the number of sites being notified to the EPA increasing significantly. The Backlog Program was established as a two-and-a-half-year project (July 2015–December 2017) to assess the backlog of 834 notified sites. The program involved allocating additional staff to obtain information relating to the sites and to assess this information to determine whether the EPA should regulate these sites under the Act. The Backlog Program was completed on 31 December 2017. Of the sites assessed, 19 required EPA regulatory action. The majority of those notified were or had been service stations.
The NSW Government has implemented programs to address the risks to human health and the environment from contaminated land.
Between July 2014 and June 2017, the EPA gained $6 million from the Environmental Trust to fund and administer the Contaminated Land Management Program (CLM Program):
- 63 sites of the 110 originally identified for the CLM Program were assessed
- 57 were assessed as not requiring further assessment
- four were assessed as requiring regulation
- the remainder were handed to the Backlog Program to assess.
The CLM program:
- funded and implemented the Council Gasworks Program, including the further investigation of the former Bowral Gasworks and the investigation of the Parkes and Waratah gasworks
- funded the investigation of 20 UPSS sites across nine local government areas with 17 sites being remediated, including 46 derelict tanks being removed or successfully managed
- placed specialist officers across four regions of NSW to support more than 50 local government areas, resulting in the improvement of up-to-date and regionally consistent policies and procedures on contaminated land management
- developed and published the Underground Petroleum Storage Systems Best Practice Guide for Environmental Incident Prevention and Management (EPA 2016) which is a guidance flipchart for operators of smaller service stations and other UPSS sites
- supported and funded the Broken Hill Environmental Lead Program, which responded to rising lead blood levels in children in the Broken Hill area by remediating playgrounds and educating parents on safe use of these areas
- funded the ongoing monitoring and rehabilitation of a site at Coramba in northern NSW, where petroleum from a leaking underground storage tank had been seeping into a backwater near the Orara River.
The NSW Government PFAS Investigation Program began in February 2016. It focuses on sites where there has been a historical use of firefighting foams and where there are exposure pathways that may increase people’s contact with PFAS chemicals such as through bore water, surface water or groundwater. These sites include:
- firefighting training facilities
- industrial sites.
The EPA is taking a precautionary approach to managing the legacy of PFAS use across NSW, focusing its investigation on sites where usage of PFAS-containing products is the greatest. The NSW Government is working with all relevant government agencies through the NSW PFAS Taskforce to monitor the progress of investigations and to keep local communities informed.
At the national level, in November 2016, environment ministers agreed that all jurisdictions have a critical role to play in developing nationally consistent standards for PFAS. This process has been coordinated by the Environment Protection Authority Victoria. The PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP) provides a nationally consistent approach to the environmental regulation of PFAS in Australia. Along with Victoria and the Commonwealth, the NSW Government is actively involved in the approach to PFAS and continues to raise this issue in Heads of Government meetings.
Regional capacity building
Obstacles to managing contaminated land in regional and rural areas have included:
- the lack of specialist technical skills
- misconceptions of regulatory liability
- a lack of financial and human resources to manage or apply appropriate planning considerations to contaminated lands.
A Council Regional Capacity Building Program is being implemented by the EPA to increase the capacity of regional councils to manage contaminated land and enable them to employ specialist technical staff to provide assistance and capacity building in contaminated land management.
References for Contaminated Sites
DUAP & EPA 1998, Managing Contaminated Land: Planning Guidelines – SEPP 55–Remediation of Land, Department of Urban Affairs & Planning and Environment Protection Authority, Sydney [www.epa.nsw.gov.au/clm/planning.htm]
EPA 2016, Underground Petroleum Storage Systems Best Practice Guide for Environmental Incident Prevention and Management, Environment Protection Authority, Sydney [https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/publications/contaminatedland/underground-petroleum-storage-systems-environmental-incident-prevention-guide-160410]
Fell C & Leeder S 2017, Review of NSW Environment Protection Authority’s Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 Procedural Guide for EPA Officers, NSW Environment Protection Authority, Sydney, June 2017 [www.epa.nsw.gov.au/your-environment/contaminated-land]
Lead Expert Working Group 2016, Lead Expert Working Group Report on Managing Residual Lead Contamination in North Lake Macquarie, Report prepared for the NSW Environment Protection Authority, NSW Environment Protection Authority, Sydney, December 2016 [www.epa.nsw.gov.au/working-together/community-engagement/community-news/lmc-review-lead-exposure-management/lead-expert-working-group]
Taylor MP & Cosenza IJ 2016, Review of the NSW Environment Protection Authority’s Management of Contaminated Sites, Macquarie University, Sydney [www.epa.nsw.gov.au/working-together/community-engagement/community-news/raaf-williamtown-contamination/williamtown-factsheets]