2004 March: Toxic Spill Crash Sparks Fears for Health

Toxic Spill from Truck Crash Sparks Fears for Health

Sydney Morning Herald March 2 2004

The Great Western Highway may be open again but a landholder closest to a toxic spill last week fears his property has been permanently contaminated.

Peter Gray’s 15-hectare block begins metres from where a truck overturned east of Lithgow last Wednesday night, killing its driver and smashing a load of herbicides, pesticides, acid and chlorine.

He has been warned not to let his dogs near his farm dam and to cease using its water.

The dam is on the same drainage line where the spill occurred and is 100 metres from a pit that was filled with sand and soil to catch any liquid escaping from the crash site.

The sandpit, near the highway, is about 20 metres long and 10 metres wide and crosses over the boundary of Mr Gray’s property. The dumped soil surrounds several large gum trees. The NSW Department of Environment and Conservation said the soil was a precaution against chemicals escaping from the site.

When the Herald visited yesterday there was a foul tar-like leachate sitting on top of parts of the bulldozed dirt, and vegetation had begun to die.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that whatever is in that hole will eventually leach into our dam,” Mr Gray said.

He has collected containers filled with pesticides to prove to authorities that the spill site clean-up has been inadequate.

The highway, at the bottom of Mount Victoria Pass, was reopened at the weekend.

But there is still a foul odour near the spill site. Mr Gray’s home a few hundred metres away stinks of chemicals.

Some people involved in the clean-up have told him and his neighbours that there are fears about the long-term environmental health of nearby land.

The department has said Mr Gray’s property is safe.

He said that he and his wife, Vanessa, had suffered headaches, had been unable to sleep properly, and had woken up sick each morning since the spill.

Both said they had been suffering from an inexplicable thirst. They have been drinking from their rainwater tanks because they were told their stored water should be safe.

Mr Gray’s neighbour, Pauline Worthington, said she too had suffered headaches.

She said she was worried about the spill’s possible effect on her land and breeding dogs.

“The lack of communication has been the biggest problem,” she said. “I have had literally no information given to me. They had breathing apparatus and we were sitting down here with nothing.

“No one has even told us what kind of chemicals they were.”

A spokesman for the department, John Dengate, said an investigation was under way.

The department will seek to determine who was responsible for the spill and whether there had been a breach of the Dangerous Goods Act, he said.

Many tens of tonnes of contaminated soil have been removed from the site for disposal.

“There’s some need for further excavation but the vast majority has already been removed,” Mr Dengate said. “The cleaning up will be done and the site will not pose a threat.”

Preliminary test results did not detect poisons in Mr Gray’s dam, he said.