[ASC-media] Media release: Australia 'lags in tackling toxic risks'

JCA Media jcamedia at starclass.com.au
Sun May 15 21:56:54 EST 2005

CRC CARE Media Release 05/01

May 16, 2005


Australia's ability to respond fast and effectively to a major contamination incident - accidental or deliberate - is under the spotlight in a new scientific research organisation.

Concern that Australia is trailing other western countries in its administrative, legal and public information frameworks for dealing with toxic contamination is behind a major investigation to be run in the new Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE).

A goal of the CRC - due to start on July 1 - is to put Australia at the global forefront in how it deals with major contamination events - whether the result of an accident, industrial activity, a deliberate toxic spill or naturally-occurring contamination, says CRC CARE chief executive Professor Ravi Naidu.

 "A scientific revolution has taken place in how we respond to the toxic threats to our society.  It's about assessing the precise nature and extent of individual hazards, and taking specific action - instead of just digging up and dumping the problem elsewhere," Prof. Naidu explains.

"Our goal is to ensure that Australia's laws, regulations, response strategies and public information systems are at the world cutting edge - to match the science."

CEO of the South Australian EPA, Dr Paul Vogel, says that Australia's guidelines for managing site contamination date back to 1992, and are now behind  technology, risk based approaches and public expectations.

"People aren't prepared to put up with living in contaminated environments any longer," he says. "There is a lot more public concern and pressure to improve the management of these, as well as the way we communicate with the community.

"It is tremendously important that the law, policy and public communication all move in step with these changes - and the CRC is making a really important contribution to ensure they do."

CRC CARE program leader Professor Rob Fowler says that one aim is to compare Australia's legal and policy frameworks for handling contamination with the best and most innovative in Europe, North America and Asia.

"For example, Australia still uses fairly unsophisticated methods for dealing with contaminated sites.  Often we just content ourselves with shifting the problem elsewhere, instead of using the latest risk assessment technology and clean-up methods to ensure it is safe.

"Our aim is to help Australian industry and government move to a risk assessment approach, where every case of contamination is treated as unique and an appropriate and cost-effective solution devised for it. In this way we hope to link the latest in science to the best in public policy."

An area with major hip-pocket consequences is the impact of contamination on property values, Prof. Fowler says.

"Poor public communication about land contamination problems can lead to local panic and cause a drop in land values in the affected area. It follows that good risk communication - like we do in the case of health threats - can help overcome this. Our aim is to establish a national protocol for how you engage the community in the issue of clean-up that is sensitive to their views and values."

Effective treatment of contaminated sites through risk assessment and remediation can also lead to higher property values, which is a benefit that flows to the community from having better science, better policy and better communication.

"If Australia can develop the world's best rules and policies for handling contamination and clean up there is also big export potential.

"Asia has an estimated 3 million contaminated sites, and it's fair to say that in many Asian countries the legal and regulatory frameworks for preventing this growing menace to public health are pretty rudimentary.

"If we can get it right in Australia, through the CRC's excellent links in Asia countries like China, Korea, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia we will create opportunities for the export of Australian expertise, not only in clean-up technology, but also in all the policy and legal stuff that surrounds it." 

Of particular importance is the need for more uniform laws and regulations governing contamination and its treatment across the nations of the Pacific, where there is currently a wide variation.  Australia is in a position to provide leadership and expert guidance on this, Prof. Fowler says.

Prof. Fowler says that the aim of the CRC's research into legal and administrative issues surrounding contamination is to ensure that the health of Australians is protected into the future, using the most effective and affordable technology and policy.

"We can have a cleaner environment to live in and enjoy, and for our children - and it needn't cost us an arm and a leg," he says.

More information:
Prof. Rob Fowler, University of SA, 08 8302 0554 or 0410 498 507
Prof. Ravi Naidu, CEO of CRC CARE, 08 8302 5041 or 0407 720 257
Dr Paul Vogel, EPA of SA, 08 204 2002

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