Defence industry pollution:
Clean-up or cover-up?
by Ernie Broad There is a need for a public inquiry and report on the transport, storage and dumping of radioactive and other hazardous substances at the Defence, Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) at Salisbury and at the RAAF Base at Edinburgh in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia. These defence land holdings also accommodate contingents of the Navy, Army and Defence contractors. Until recently Australian Defence Industries (ADI) also operated a manufacturing facility on DSTO land. The role of DSTO is to provide professional advice on modern applications of science and technology that are best suited to Australia's defence and security needs. ADI is (or was) the public sector wing of the Australian defence industry. Therefore, although on DSTO land and closely aligned, it is not under the direct control of DSTO. The ADI facilities were established in 1991. For a time certain propellants manufacture was located at the ADI Salisbury site alongside the Adelaide-Gawler rail line. The Department of Defence intends to sell off about 700 hectares of its holdings in the Salisbury- Elizabeth area and the local Playford Council is seeking to acquire some of it. A range of hazardous substances were dumped around the DSTO site and around the neighbouring RAAF Base, which was a virtual extension of what is now DSTO at the time of the Maralinga nuclear tests and the activities at the Woomera rocket base. Over a 50-year period, one group after another of DSTO management or supervisory people chose to ignore recurring and compounding inappropriate waste management practices. No reliable record was kept of what was dumped, how much was buried, how it was buried, or where it was buried. The only certain fact is that many hazardous substances were thoughtlessly, even recklessly concealed instead of being rendered harmless in a properly controlled manner. Over the years little has changed except that there is now the additional hazard of radioactive waste, and the site is no longer in a remote location. The urban sprawl is engulfing it. At a research centre like DSTO, which boasts of being at the cutting edge of technology, many of its projects involved the use of techniques and materials for which there were no specific safety regulations. Most safety legislation was State-based, therefore not binding on the Commonwealth, and although host State legislation was supposed to be observed, it was disregarded with impunity. There were no checks of compliance and management of the site was based on the concept of self-regulation. That sort of thing could — and can — happen on Commonwealth controlled projects, particularly when over the years the employing authority hid behind the implied threat of penalty under the Officials Secrets Act. That was enough to persuade most people to think twice before saying anything that might be embarrassing to the Department. In preparation for the sale of the land, DSTO has done some assessment of the extent of the contamination. A report for DSTO by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, dated June 1993, noted an excessively high concentration of the radio nuclide Cesium-137, a fall-out product from the testing of nuclear bombs. This suggests that radioactive materials from Maralinga have been secretly buried in the vicinity. In August 1993, by way of a notice to alleviate employee concerns DSTO stated that there were 41 dump sites. DSTO has since retained consultants Rust PPK to advise on "contamination remediation". At a public relations briefing in October 1995, in an otherwise slick presentation, Rust PPK representatives said that the first priority was cost containment before hastily correcting himself, saying the priority was health and safety. They then announced that 172 dump sites had been identified. Is the clean-up only a cover-up? Where secrecy is as endemic to an organisation such as DSTO, self-regulation is a potential recipe for abuse. There is a clear public interest in the DSTO being made fully accountable on environmental issues. The clean up of the Defence land must be supervised by a suitably qualified independent body to ensure that it is carried out in a scrupulously proper manner and that the process is made fully available for public scrutiny. The truth about the mismanagement of hazardous waste disposal at DSTO has been concealed for too long. Public health would be at risk if the clean up is skimped to reduce costs. Will the South Australian or Federal Government give an unequivocal guarantee for the safety of all persons making any use of the site in the future?