The Age (Australia): Shell under fire over secrecy on discharges: "Shell Australia has been accused of withholding data showing that high levels of potentially cancer-causing benzene have been released from the oil giant's Geelong refinery.": Thursday 18 August 2005
Geelong Grammar in the foreground with the Shell Geelong
oil refinery in the background.
Photo: Craig Abraham
Shell Australia has been accused of withholding data showing that high levels of potentially cancer-causing benzene have been released from the oil giant's Geelong refinery.
Former CSIRO scientist Chris Mardon, who analysed benzene data recorded by Shell's air-monitoring equipment, claims record levels of benzene emissions came from the refinery, which is near Geelong Grammar and primary schools, over 13 days in April.
In a sworn statement lodged with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Mr Mardon said the April data was not included in a June presentation by Shell to local residents about benzene emissions.
The Environment Protection Authority has ordered an investigation of Shell's air-monitoring equipment. The EPA said yesterday that the company's equipment did not have independent laboratory accreditation.
The EPA is also considering court action against Shell over an oil spill into Corio Bay in April. It is just one of hundreds of environmental breaches at the company's Geelong refinery in recent years.
But the EPA and Shell denied that benzene emissions from the refinery were unusually high in April. Benzene is a carcinogen linked to cancer and leukaemia.
In his VCAT submission, Mr Mardon said he analysed 2000 pages of benzene data provided by Shell which showed there had been major benzene emissions in April that were not reported to the EPA or the community.
He said the data showed the intervention level — established to protect the community from long-term exposure to toxins — was exceeded for 18 consecutive hours on one day in April.
Mr Mardon is a member of Geelong Community for Good Life, a community group that has been critical of the refinery's environmental performance.
He said Shell presented a graph of the April data to a community meeting in June, but "many of the large peaks (were) deleted". He said Shell subsequently denied the data was valid.
The EPA operates air-monitoring equipment outside the refinery. But Mr Mardon said the equipment's valid data progressively decreased this year because of a tree growing across the instrument's light path.
"Given the EPA claims to be checking the measurements daily, it is extraordinary that they appear not to have noticed the rapid decline in the percentage of valid data since December last year," he said.
Mr Mardon made the submission in advance of a VCAT hearing today into an application by Shell's neighbour, Terminals Pty Ltd, to establish a butadiene facility in Corio.
The EPA's executive director of regional services, Bruce Dawson, said EPA scientific staff had assessed Shell's April data and there was no excess benzene intervention level.
As for the EPA equipment, he could not say how long the tree had interfered but did not believe it was for an extended time.
Mr Dawson said the EPA was investigating Shell's equipment because it was important that "we establish a high level of confidence" that emission levels were being measured accurately.
"We are investigating and considering enforcement action regarding a spill to the bay earlier this year," he said. "We are also investigating a number of issues associated with Shell's licence conditions, in particular the operation of the air-monitoring equipment.
"Shell's environmental performance has got a long way to go. They have a very prescriptive licence which sets down a whole range of operating and improvement conditions. We think it's important those conditions are met and improvements made."
Shell Geelong Refinery spokeswoman Joan McGovern said its analysis of the April data showed peaks recorded that month were not benzene.
"Benzene monitoring and analysis is complex, which is why Shell Geelong Refinery has relied on the EPA and our Cerex provider to conduct statistical analysis and give direction on operational issues," she said.
"The data in question was analysed extensively by our Cerex provider, who informed the refinery that the peaks in the data were not benzene. The EPA will be conducting an audit of Cerex, and the refinery sees this as a positive move to resolve concern by some community members."
But Mr Mardon last night disputed that the Cerex provider had found that the peaks were not benzene.
Ms McGovern said an EPA air-monitoring report released in June found that average benzene concentrations in Corio were similar to levels in Melbourne.
"The EPA report showed that during this two-year period emissions in the Corio area exceeded the investigation level for only two hours, which should give comfort that Shell Geelong Refinery's emission controls are working well," she said.