The Guardian August 18, 1999


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?

Back to index page