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Report Details

Committee Name:

Environment and Public Affairs Committee (2001 - 2005)


Legislative Council
Report Type:Report


Alcoa Refinery at Wagerup Inquiry
Report No:11
No of Pages:516 plus a minority report
Physical Location:Legislative Council Committee Office

Presentation Date:

Inquiry Name(s):Alcoa Alumina Refinery at Wagerup

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    Hide details for Executive Summary and RecommendationsExecutive Summary and Recommendations

    Executive Summary

    Many industrial facilities and chemical processes have been introduced with great economic benefit to the State of Western Australia, providing employment and economic returns to companies, government and in turn the community of Western Australia.

    In recent years the social and environmental costs and benefits of these projects have been widely debated in local communities, the wider community, Parliament and the media.

    There has been growing community concern in various locations throughout WA about potential health impacts to workers and local communities of a wide range of industrial emissions and waste management processes. In particular concerns have emerged from employees of, and the communities around, Alcoa’s refinery at Wagerup, with people experiencing negative health and social impacts.

    In November 2001 Hon Jim Scott MLC noted those concerns had been brought to his attention. Significant health and environmental impacts were being reported in and around Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery, despite the recorded levels of individual chemicals not exceeding permissible levels.

    The Committee resolved on November 8 2001 to commence an inquiry into the Alcoa refinery at Wagerup. Terms of reference specific to the issues at Wagerup ensured the scope of the inquiry remained focused.

    The Committee’s inquiry considered several key issues:

    • the operations and impacts of Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery;
    • the adequacy of responses from government departments and agencies to the problems at Wagerup;
    • Alcoa’s recognition of, and responses to, the issues relating to the refinery;
    • as to whether those issues have now been resolved;
    • lessons to be learned from the Wagerup experience;
    • issues for the consideration of the Western Australian government; and
    • the future for Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery.

    Since the commencement of the inquiry in 2001 the Committee received 71 written submissions and conducted more than 20 hearings. The Committee would like to thank the many individuals, government agencies, departments, and companies that provided information to the Committee during the course of its inquiry. The Committee requested a large volume of information during the course of this complex and technical inquiry from a number of stakeholders, and it wishes to acknowledge the assistance provided to it in this respect. In particular, the Committee expresses its thanks to Alcoa for its co-operation and assistance in providing a large volume of complex information.

    The issues surrounding the Alcoa refinery at Wagerup are highly complex, emotive and divisive. During the inquiry the Committee heard evidence from many people who shared their very personal experiences. The Committee greatly appreciated this.

    Due to the emotive nature of some matters raised during the inquiry, a number of witnesses made statements and provided submissions of their opinion regarding certain matters that contradicted other evidence received. The Committee has included these contradictory statements to illustrate the complexity of the issues raised. Where appropriate, counter-balancing responses to these statements have been obtained from relevant parties.

    The Committee’s role is not to adjudicate as a court of law on the issues raised during this inquiry. The Committee’s approach in this report has been to focus on the response by Alcoa and government departments and agencies to the issues raised. The Committee has examined the evidence and made recommendations to help prevent similar problems occurring in the future in Western Australia.

    The role of a parliamentary committee is to inquire on behalf of, and report to, the Parliament (in this case the Legislative Council) with recommendations for consideration by the Legislative Council and Government. Accordingly, as Alcoa is a private non-government entity, the Committee has not directed recommendations to Alcoa. The Committee has, however, made various findings relevant to that company’s activities.

    In making its findings and recommendations, the Committee has been mindful of the considerable benefits provided by Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery to the State and its people, as well as the potential risks to workers and residents in nearby communities through unintended consequences. The Committee notes that, despite the weight of concerns expressed to the Committee by many witnesses, the cause or causes of the health impacts has not been scientifically identified. This does not in any way, however, undermine the recognition and significance of the very real impacts experienced by many people.

    One of the most significant findings of the Committee’s inquiry is with regard to Alcoa’s efforts to establish an informal buffer zone around the refinery. The Committee, whilst recognising Alcoa’s good intentions, has found that Alcoa’s current land management strategy is inequitable. The Committee encourages Alcoa to consider other options as outlined in Chapter 7 to resolve this issue in a manner which is perceived to be fairer to all involved.

    Other important findings and observations can be found at:
    • Chapter 2 (Background to Alcoa, The Alumina Process and the Issues Associated with the Wagerup refinery), paragraphs 2.104 to 2.108;
    • Chapter 3 (Community Complaints), paragraphs 3.61 to 3.67;
    • Chapter 4 (Public Health), paragraphs 4.410 to 4.439;
    • Chapter 5 (Occupational Health and Safety and Compensation and Rehabilitation), paragraphs 5.92 to 5.101;
    • Chapter 6 (Environmental Impacts), paragraphs 6.248 to 6.266;
    • Chapter 7 (Loss of Amenity), paragraphs 7.213 to 7.224;
    • Chapter 8 (Social Impacts), paragraphs 8.191 to 8.201;
    • Chapter 9 (Adequacy of Regulatory Mechanisms), paragraphs 9.222 to 9.252; and
    • Chapter 10 (The Past, Present and Future for Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery).

    The Committee emphasises that this report is an assessment of the matters relating to the Alcoa refinery at Wagerup until approximately July 2004. On October 5 2004, one week before the Committee was scheduled to finalise its report, a letter from the Minister for the Environment attaching a 21 page submission and over 600 pages of documents from the Department of Environment was delivered to the offices of the Committee in response to matters raised by the Committee in March 2004 and again in May 2004. The Committee considered that it was highly desirable that its report not be delayed by virtue of this late material and was concerned that its report be finalised and tabled to ensure that the matters covered would be publicly reported without further delay. Accordingly the Committee accepted the material and has endeavoured to note within the report where the material may have relevance. This matter is discussed further at paragraphs 1.19 to 1.20 of this report.


    Recommendations are grouped as they appear in the text at the page number indicated:

    Page 31

    Recommendation 1: The Committee recommends that Government agencies and regulatory authorities should use the term ‘emissions’ rather than ‘odours’ to describe general emissions from the refining process.

    Page 46

    Recommendation 2: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment establish a more readily accessible and transparent complaint handling system which includes formal acknowledgment when a complaint is registered.

    Page 135

    Recommendation 3: The Committee recommends that the Department of Health, as a matter of priority, establish a discrete, organised public health response to the situation at Wagerup. This should comprise, in part:

  • a long-term health surveillance program, backdated to 1996, and include current and former employees at the Alcoa refinery at Wagerup, current and former contractors at the Alcoa refinery at Wagerup and current and former members of the local communities of Yarloop, Hamel and Cookernup;
  • a health audit of the total population of Yarloop. This health audit should be repeated in five years time; and
  • counselling and referral to appropriate health services being made available.

    Page 136

    Recommendation 4: The Committee recommends that the Government review its decision to close the Yarloop Community Clinic.

    Page 136

    Recommendation 5: The Committee recommends that the Government give immediate priority to the establishment and long-term funding of an Environmental Health Foundation, to be independent from Government but required to report to the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Health.

    Page 136

    Recommendation 6: The Committee recommends that the Government should cause all reports received from the Environmental Health Foundation to be tabled before each House of Parliament.

    Page 136

    Recommendation 7: The Committee recommends that the membership of the Environmental Health Foundation include community representation.

    Page 136

    Recommendation 8: The Committee recommends that that the Environmental Health Foundation report to Government on, among other things:

    • diagnostic tools available for cases of multiple chemical sensitivities; for example, the use of chromosome testing;
    • treatment options for managing the condition of people who have multiple chemical sensitivities;
    • methodologies for the carriage of health surveillance programs;
    • methodologies for the carriage of health impact assessments; and
    • reviewing the current exposure standards for arsenic and bringing them in line with international standards.

    Page 137

    Recommendation 9: The Committee recommends that the Government facilitate the development of the study of environmental health in Western Australia, particularly in the area of environmental toxicology to ensure the availability of fully qualified, experienced and independent toxicologists.

    Page 137

    Recommendation 10: The Committee recommends that the Department of Health should ensure access to appropriate medical expertise and diagnostic health and support services for people with multiple chemical sensitivities and other chemical injuries.

    Page 164

    Recommendation 11: The Committee recommends that the Government consider amending the Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 1981 in relation to the recognition of cover for those people who may have symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivities and in so doing to seek advice from the proposed Environmental Health Foundation and other relevant stakeholders.

    Page 225

    Recommendation 12: The Committee recommends that the proposed CSIRO Wagerup Air Quality Research Program be undertaken as a priority.

    Page 225

    Recommendation 13: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment work with Alcoa to take immediate action to remediate contaminated ground water at Alcoa’s refinery at Wagerup.

    Page 225

    Recommendation 14: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment investigate methods of extraction of water from the Harvey River to ensure that water being extracted by Alcoa occurs only during periods of peak nutrient levels.

    Page 225

    Recommendation 15: The Committee recommends that at the planning stage for new industries and for the expansion of existing facilities in Western Australia, the Department of Environment should require emissions dispersion modelling to use site specific data rather than generic meteorological data unless a specific exemption is warranted.

    Page 225

    Recommendation 16: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment should assess licensed industrial premises in Western Australia to determine the appropriateness, in each case, of requiring continuous emissions monitoring.

    Page 225

    Recommendation 17: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment, as a matter of priority, cause an effective dust suppression program to be implemented at the residue disposal areas at the Alcoa refinery at Wagerup.

    Page 308

    Recommendation 18: The Committee recommends that the State Government take critical note of current breaches of the existing noise limits for Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery in its consideration of the proposal to increase production from the refinery.

    Page 365

    Recommendation 19: The Committee recommends that significant increased funding be provided by the State Government to the Department of Environment in line with funding in other States to enable it to adequately carry out its regulatory role.

    Page 365

    Recommendation 20: The Committee recommends that the Government, as a matter of priority, develop and finalise air emission guidelines specific to Western Australia and that these should include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and standards for multiple chemical exposure.

    Page 365

    Recommendation 21: The Committee recommends that the Department of Environment requires Alcoa, as a licence condition, to inform the Department of Industry and Resources as well as the Department of Environment, when emission events occur.

    Page 365

    Recommendation 22: The Committee recommends that the Department of Health, as a matter of priority, derive a hazard index for locations near to Wagerup in order to assess the health risks caused by the cumulative impact of the very high number of chemicals mixed together in the emissions from Alcoa’s refinery at Wagerup.

    Page 366

    Recommendation 23: The Committee recommends that the regulatory regimes and practices relating to the:

    • Department of Industry and Resources;
    • Department of Environment; and
    • Department of Health,

    be reviewed to ensure that action is taken when worker or public health is harmed, or is likely to be harmed, by emissions from industrial facilities and that the exercise of such powers not be dependent on whether or not regulations, guidelines or licence conditions are being breached.

    Page 366

    Recommendation 24: The Committee recommends that the regular recording and auditing of workplace accidents and emission incidents be made a part of the safety and health regime of the Department of Industry and Resources. This information should be used for early identification of safety and health problems and for identifying whether existing safety and emission regulations are effective. The information should be publicly available.

    Page 366

    Recommendation 25: The Committee recommends that the Department of Industry and Resources be adequately funded to undertake the responsibilities referred to in Recommendation 24.

    Page 366

    Recommendation 26: The Committee recommends that the Government carry out a review of legislation and administrative procedures governing the engagement of consultants by government agencies to reduce the potential for conflict of interest.

    Page 366

    Recommendation 27: The majority of the Committee recommends that the Government review and report on the role of the Department of Industry and Resources as both regulator of mine safety and facilitator of mine developments with a view to determining whether such roles might be better addressed in separated agencies. The report of any review should be tabled in Parliament. Hons Bruce Donaldson and Robyn McSweeney MLCs dissented from this Recommendation.

    Page 367

    Recommendation 28: The majority of the Committee recommends that, in addition to the proposed amendments to the Mines Safety and Inspection Act 1994 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 (refer to paragraphs 9.214 to 9.221 of this report), the Government amend the legislative regime to require that all occupational safety and health matters in Western Australia come under one Act, namely the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984. Hons Bruce Donaldson and Robyn McSweeney MLCs dissented from this Recommendation.

    Page 367

    Recommendation 29: The Committee recommends that the Government review legislation and make necessary amendments to ensure that the Department of Health has a formal role in advising the Environmental Protection Authority in relation to the assessment of projects that may impact on public health.