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New South Wales State of the Environment
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SoE 2003 > Land > 4.6 Chemical contamination: land

Chapter 4: Land

4.6 Chemical contamination: land

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4.6 Chemical contamination: land

Management processes are in place to investigate and remediate the relatively small number of regulated contaminated sites identified to date

At 30 June 2002, a total of 107 contaminated sites that posed a 'significant risk of harm' were being regulated under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997. This compared with the 92 sites reported in NSW State of the Environment 2000. The number of sites with lower levels of contamination under investigation by local government is not known.

There is a significant legacy of derelict mine sites in NSW that is being addressed slowly.

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NSW Indicator


Status of Indicator

4.7 Number of regulated contaminated sites

Since NSW State of the Environment 2000, there has been a small increase in the number of contaminated sites regulated under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997.

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Importance of the issue

The major concern relating to contaminated land is its potential for immediate or long-term adverse effects on human health and the environment. The leaching of contaminants into soils and nearby ground or surface waters, as well as their direct uptake by plants and animals, are some of the main environmental impacts associated with these sites. These impacts can in turn affect public health by exposing people to polluted surface and ground waters, inhalation and ingestion of soil, or through uptake and subsequent bioaccumulation by plants and animals (ANZECC & NHMRC 1992). EPA 2000a has further details on these impacts.

It is difficult to estimate the total number of contaminated sites in NSW as in many cases it is only after the polluting activity or land use has ceased, or the site is being prepared for redevelopment, that the contamination is discovered. Known contaminated sites tend to be clustered in areas that have historically been centres of heavy industry or transport hubs, such as Newcastle, Wollongong and south-eastern and mid-western Sydney, or chemically intensive agricultural activities, such as cattle tick dip sites in north-eastern NSW. There is also a significant legacy of derelict mines in NSW. Nonetheless, contamination may occur in many other areas.

Once a site is identified as being contaminated, its owner is obliged to notify the authorities. Any site that poses a 'significant risk of harm' to human health and/or the environment, as defined by the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997, is regulated by the EPA. Land contamination on other sites is dealt with by local councils through the planning and development control process, usually as part of approving a change in land use or a new development.

The EPA's regulatory activity under the Act has increased since NSW State of the Environment 2000 with 107 contaminated sites subject to notices under the Act at 30 June 2002. This compares with the 92 sites reported in 2000 (EPA 2000b). The number of sites under investigation by local government is unknown.

Table 4.8 and Table 4.9 highlight the types of contamination and the former land uses of sites currently regulated under the Act.

Table 4.8: Types of contamination in sites currently regulated in NSW


No. of sites

Pesticides (organochlorine or organophosphate)


Metals (and metalloids)




Organochlorines other than pesticides






Source: EPA data, as at 30 June 2002

Note: Individual sites may have more than one contaminant.

Table 4.9: Former land uses of sites currently regulated in NSW

Former land use

No. of sites





Cattle dip


Petrol station


Chemical industry


Metal processing works


Drum recycler


Other industry




Source: EPA data, as at 30 June 2002

Note: Sites may have had more than one former land use and not all previous uses are known.

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Response to the issue

As part of a NSW Government reform package for contaminated lands, the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 was introduced to replace Part V of the Environmentally Hazardous Chemicals Act 1985. The new Act applied the polluter-pays principle and established a process for investigating and, where appropriate, remediating areas of land where contamination presents a significant risk of harm to either human health or the environment. The Act empowers the EPA to issue orders, declarations, notices or voluntary agreements to investigate or remediate an area or site that is contaminated. By 30 June 2002, there were 143 regulatory notices active on sites regulated by the EPA, with some individual sites subject to more than one notice.

Another element of the reform package was State Environmental Planning Policy No.55: Remediation of Land (SEPP 55). Contaminated sites that do not present a significant risk of harm are generally managed by local councils under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, in accordance with SEPP 55 and its associated planning guideline. SEPP 55 indicates when development consent is required for remediation work and includes important information on the requirements for public notification. It also requires consent authorities to consider particular matters when rezoning land or assessing development applications. At present it is difficult to assess the number of contaminated sites in local government areas. However progress is being made by some councils who are developing contaminated lands registers, while others are compiling registers of premises used for the storage, manufacture and/or use of hazardous chemicals and toxic wastes.

In December 1999, the National Environment Protection Council made the National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure. This measure is designed to provide a consistent approach to assessing potentially contaminated land across all States and Territories. In NSW it has been adopted within the existing legislative framework and its components approved as guidelines under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 (NEPC 2001). The Environment Protection and Heritage Council's National Chemicals Taskforce was established in 2002 to examine existing frameworks for chemical use and management.

There are also a number of programs addressing specific issues relating to contaminated lands in NSW including:

  • NSW Agriculture's cattle tick dip and sheep dip sites program, which aims to decommission around 50 dip sites per year and has decommissioned almost 400 to date
  • the Environmental Trust's Contaminated Land Management Program, which is providing up to $2.5 million per year between 2001 and 2004 to assist remediation of contaminated sites owned by 'innocent' parties
  • the Derelict Mines Program under the Mining Act 1992 through which funds are allocated for rehabilitation of disused mines
  • controls on the use of agricultural chemicals under the Pesticides Act 1999 and the ChemCollect program for the collection and safe disposal of unwanted farm chemicals.

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Effectiveness of responses

The contaminated land management reforms and the coordinated approach of the National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure have created an effective framework for responding to contamination of sites once they are identified.

The NSW legislation provides a better system for reporting of sites where contamination presents a significant risk of harm by specifically requiring landowners to report sites and giving community groups and individuals access to information on the sites being regulated. The framework has also been streamlined with the repeal of the Unhealthy Building Land Act 1990.

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Future directions

Prevention of new contamination requires continued vigilance by the operators and regulators of activities that use or store hazardous substances.

Remediation of existing sites is costly. Remediation and reuse is most likely to occur quickly where a new development is proposed on the contaminated site. Continued focus by government agencies and developers on streamlining processes for determining remediation requirements and techniques for achieving them will increase the number of sites being cleaned up.

It is important for future reporting that information is available on the sites being managed by local councils.

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Linked issues

2.1 Population and settlement patterns

2.5 Waste management

4.7 Chemical contamination: food and produce

5.1 Freshwater riverine ecosystem health

5.3 Surface water quality

5.5 Groundwater quality

5.6 Marine and estuarine water quality

5.7 Sediment contamination

6.1 Terrestrial ecosystems

6.3 Terrestrial species diversity

6.6 Aquatic ecosystems

6.7 Aquatic species diversity

6.9 Aquatic harvesting

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