Five chemicals subject to strict environmental controls in the United States, including an acid powerful enough to melt glass, have been left off Australia’s National Pollutant Inventory.
All five of these chemicals are believed to have been released into the environment by Melbourne factories recently.
The inventory, the subject of four years of negotiation between Federal and State Governments, industry and environmental groups, was released on Friday but lists just 36 chemicals that need to be notified compared with about 650 listed in US law. Under the code, companies must notify authorities if they release a certain quantity of the listed chemicals directly into the air or waterways.
The five hazardous chemicals left off the list are: aluminium oxide, hydrogen fluoride, butyl acrylate, propylene oxide and vinyl acetate.
A spokesman for the federal Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, said the list of chemicals had been restricted to 36 because larger lists were cumbersome and costly to administer.
The Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace have said when the inventory was proposed in 1994, there were 120 chemicals considered a serious enough environmental hazard to be listed.
The foundation’s vice-president, Dr Peter Brotherton, said pressure from industry and the state governments had watered the list down. “As it has come out, it is so limited as to be hopeless. On this matter the states have been allowed to run amok, instead of being a national policy it has become a states rights issue.
“To leave out chemicals such as propylene oxide and hydrogen fluoride is just bizarre. Hydrogen fluoride is an acid so powerful it can’t be kept in glass,” he said.
Environmental groups are particularly concerned that some dumping of the scheduled pollutants does not have to be notified under the scheme.
A spokesman for the controlling body, the National Environment Protection Council, Mr Bruce Kennedy, said companies would not have to notify if they dumped the pollutants into sewers, tailings dams or into landfills.
He said it had been decided not to require companies to notify these disposals because they were classified as transfers. Putting a pollutant into a sewer or landfill was not considered discharging it into the environment. “It is not so much what goes into a sewer or landfill that we are concerned about, it is what comes out.”
Mr Kennedy said it would be the responsibility of the authorities that managed sewers or landfills to notify of any chemicals released, not the companies that put them there.
Mr Matt Ruchel, from Greenpeace, said a 1994 survey by his organisation found the five chemicals were released into the environment in large quantities by 27 Melbourne companies. The biggest release was hydrogen fluoride at 16,820 kilograms.
Chemical and its effect Amount released in Melbourne 1994
Aluminium oxide, a suspected carcinogen 6800kg
Hydrogen fluoride, 16,820kg a glass melting acid linked to human mutations.
Butyl acrylate, an environmental toxin. 458kg
Propylene oxide, a mutagen 13,802kg
Vinyl acetate, a poison 1873kg