IF you think individual businesses will find it hard under the new Contaminated Sites legislation, spare a thought for the WA Government.
Under the proposed legislation, not only will the government bear ultimate responsibility for remediation, various government departments also will be required to record, report on and clean up any possible contaminated sites.
Such responsibility would eventuate if no other party can be found to be in breach of the legislation.
The State Government controls more than 60,000 sites. One agency spoken to by WA Business News estimates the cost of undertaking a detailed assessment is between $15,000 and $100,000 per site, depending on site size and complexity.
Auditor General Des Pearson recognised the huge task of the government in a report he tabled in November last year. In it he also pointed out the effect contamination could have on land valuation.
His report, Grounds for Improvement: Government Owned or Controlled Contaminated Sites, indicated that the government was largely unaware of the serious and financial risk contaminated sites posed for the public sector.
Mr Pearson reports that because no-one really knows what defines a contaminated site the real fall-out is still uncertain.
However, Mr Pearson found that estimates made by the Department of Environmental Protection in 1997 suggested there were at least 1,500 private and public contaminated sites on the Swan Coastal Plain alone.
Of 10 landholding government agencies reviewed by the auditor general, which between them hold more than 60,000 properties, only Western Power, and LandCorp had management policies, practices and systems in place to deal with the issue of contamination.
The audit found that other agencies appeared often reluctant to commit the required resources to address the issue.
The Department of Land Administration, which controls the Crown Land that takes in about 93 per cent of the State’s land mass, has the largest task. It has around 58,000 sites worth an estimated $2.3 billion on its books. Western Power has 3,000 properties in its portfolio, the Conservation and Land Management has more than 2,000 properties while Main Roads, the WA Government Railways Commission and LandCorp have similar land holdings.
The audit indicated that even the smaller government agency land-holders could face significant risk. The Gold Corporation, for instance, had 22 ‘battery’ sites vested to it in 1987. Contamination on these sites originates from the late 19th century when the battery sites were set up to assist miners attract minerals from ore using battery and chemical leaching. In addition to these known sites, a further 50 such sites have been operating since 1899, although some of these locations around the State have become unknown.
While the cost to be born by the State Government will remain uncertain until legislation is put in place, a number of sites already cleaned up gives an indication of future costs.
Thus far, $17.5 million has been spent on the East Perth Gas Works. Minim Cove in Mosman Park cost LandCorp $16 million, while the cost of cleaning up Port Catherine is estimated to be $6 million.
But it will not just be the direct remediation costs that government must bear. With positive contamination identification is the risk of a sharp devaluation in the property price.
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