The West Australian Premier has defended Chevron’s actions following revelations that continuing failure of the carbon storage facility at its Gorgon LNG project in the Pilbara has exposed workers to toxic chemicals.
But Doctors for the Environment Australia called the news “startling … very, very worrying”, and called for immediate state government action and a Health Department referral.
Since beginning operations at Barrow Island, 85 kilometres off the north-west coast, Chevron has failed to commission the facility that was to bury carbon pollution underground to comply with the conditions of its environmental approval.
WAtoday reported on Thursday that documents made public by the state environmental regulator have made it clear that as well as carbon dioxide, Chevron had also intended to inject underground toxic chemicals including BTEX chemicals – benzene (a known carcinogen), toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene – and mercury into the underground storage facility.
Instead, during the plant’s two years of operations, these vapours have been vented direct to the atmosphere containing 300 parts per million BTEX and 13,000 micrograms of mercury per cubic metre.
Department of Water and Environmental Regulation has not announced the results of any monitoring being done on air quality on the island, but only flagged “health and safety concerns”.
It will now allow Chevron to burn, or ‘flare’, the gas further away from the plant workers for up to 12 months as a stop-gap measure but this does not reduce the quantity of mercury being released.
On Thursday the CFMEU, whose workers on Barrow Island are fearful for their health, and Conservation Council of WA called for Environment Minister Stephen Dawson to make a public statement on the matter and suspend the plant’s operations until it is able to comply with its approvals.
But the minister’s office did not take the opportunity to comment, deferring instead to the Environmental Protection Authority, which only said a review into Chevron’s conditions, begun a year ago, was continuing.
Asked for comment by 9 News Perth, Premier Mark McGowan said: “I met with the management of Chevron recently and they assured me they’re trying to get the carbon capture and storage facility up and running as soon as possible … hopefully later this year. It’s an important component of their original approval – which I actually did, back in 2006 – that the carbon be re-injected underground as soon as possible.”
Mr McGowan did not address the issue of the BTEX and mercury being released.
A Chevron spokesman said the company was committed to providing a safe environment for its workforce and as part of routine operations, had extensive monitoring in place to ensure emissions were within acceptable levels.
He said more than 400 personnel and area samples had been taken over the past quarter, testing for a variety of emissions, none of which had exceeded exposure limits.
Doctors for the Environment Australia representative George Crisp said it was not acceptable to leave it to Chevron to decide whether people were at risk.
“It’s the government’s responsibility to protect the health of West Australians, not Chevron,” he said.
“The [Premier’s] response is not at all satisfactory – it sounds like a response to appease Chevron, not those at risk.”
He said the concentrations of BTEX chemicals and mercury named in the DWER document were “significant” but without knowing the volumes, locations and timing of gas being flared or vented, it was impossible to know the potential concentrations people were being exposed to.
Personal or air quality monitoring devices were the way to find out.
He said the BTEX chemicals and their effect on air quality, and the release of elemental mercury into the atmosphere, were two separate issues.
“Benzene is toxic at levels measured in the parts per billion,” he said.
“There is really no safe level of benzene, but the ‘safe’ level is 5 parts per billion. That’s like one drop in an Olympic swimming pool.
“Obviously [on Barrow Island] it is diluted but we don’t know how much.
“Also, we assess toxicity on individual chemicals and one of the problems with oil and gas facilities is that people are exposed to hundreds of different chemicals and many are highly toxic but we don’t know how they affect people in combination.”
Mercury was quite a separate issue, Dr Crisp said, and concern about mercury was growing as climate change impacts became widespread.
In the past 200 years of industrialisation, all the mercury burnt with coal and gas had dispersed, he said. Some had been absorbed by plants and vegetation, some was sitting on surface ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. When a forest burnt down or an ice sheet melted all that mercury was released back into the system and became available for uptake into the food chain.
“So Gorgon emitting amounts of mercury contributes to a problem we already know is unfolding,” he said.
“It gets re-circulated and goes into the food chain … gets metabolised, eaten by other creatures, plankton, small fish then big fish … by the time you eat a shark there is a dangerous amount of mercury.
“We need to know what this means for people eating local fish or animals grazing land nearby.
“When something like this happens and we find that instead of sequestering the mercury it has been liberated, that immediately requires investigation.”
He said Chevron had not made it clear what they were measuring.
“Personal monitors are a good idea and reflect exposure – depending on what you’re measuring – it’s reassuring if they are testing for the relevant things. But you would want to know the circumstances, when it was done, which groups of people they are talking about, what timeframes,” he said.
“This should certainly be made available to the people affected … in real time.
“If there is a health risk the Health Department should be notified as a matter of urgency.”