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New South Wales State of the Environment
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SoE 2009 > Land > 5.2 Chemicals in the NSW environment

Chapter 5: Land

5.2 Chemicals in the NSW environment

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5.2 Chemicals in the NSW environment

The pace of remediation of contaminated land in New South Wales is increasing. At the same time the growth in the number of newly regulated sites is slowing. Compliance with chemical residues standards continues to be high.

There were 272 contaminated sites regulated under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 and Environmentally Hazardous Chemicals Act 1985 at June 2009, with 114 sites successfully remediated compared with 79 in June 2006. Changes to legislation on 1 July 2009 have streamlined and strengthened the provisions of the management framework.

Testing of wholesale and retail food and produce shows that consumers' dietary exposure to chemical residues, including pesticides, meets international and Australian reference standards.

As a member of the Environment Protection and Heritage Council and the Council of Australian Governments, the NSW Government has agreed to the establishment of a national environmental chemicals standards-setting body and an environmental chemical management framework.

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NSW indicators

Indicator and status


Information availability

Number of regulated contaminated sites



Exceedences of maximum residue levels in food and produce

No change


Notes: Terms and symbols used above are defined in About SoE 2009 at the front of the report.

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Chemicals are used widely – in industry, forestry, for agricultural and veterinary purposes (known as 'agvet' chemicals) and therapeutically – and they play an essential role in modern society. However, avoiding environmental harm from their manufacture, use and disposal requires assessment and management across their entire life cycle. In addition to the synthetic biochemicals of the past few decades, the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is an emerging issue which blurs the boundaries between the management of chemicals and biodiversity.

NSW is part of a national chemicals management system that applies across various sectors of the economy, including primary production, industry, pharmaceutical and therapeutic goods, construction, occupational health and safety, and the environmental management sector. The national system operates within an international framework of treaties and obligations. In NSW, contaminated land and sediments and stockpiles of intractable wastes which are legacies of past chemical use have been actively regulated for decades. Well-established frameworks also manage the risks that agvet chemicals may pose to the health and safety of workers, the general public and consumers. From these, two main areas of reporting systems for contaminated sites and chemical residues in food and produce have matured over the past decade or so.

However, as in many countries, risks to the NSW environment from the use of chemicals in a range of applications have not been comprehensively managed. These include their use in commercial and residential construction and maintenance (building materials, paints, domestic cleaning products and insecticides) and as pharmaceutical and therapeutic chemicals, as well as GMOs. Tens of thousands of chemicals are manufactured and, although their production and industrial use are controlled, their impacts on places of work, residence and recreation are largely unknown.

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Status and trends

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Contaminated land

Identifying problem areas

Contaminated land is typically found in areas which have been mined or used for heavy industry or chemically intensive agriculture.

Land is contaminated by chemicals and hazardous materials at concentrations which may have the potential to affect human health or the environment. Contamination is not always obvious. Most of the sites where the environment and human health are known to be at risk from on-site contamination or migration of contaminants to other sites have been managed effectively for many years.

The trend over the past decade has been to identify and manage sites that are less obviously contaminated. These contaminated sites are often identified only when they are prepared for sale or redevelopment, or with a change in land use, such as when industrial land in urban areas is zoned for residential or recreational use.

Contamination can reduce the value of land and restrict its suitability for more sensitive land uses. Remediation may be required to make the land suitable for its proposed use and protect human health and the environment. Remediation is often expensive and time-consuming.

The majority of contaminated sites in NSW are not considered to be significantly contaminated and are managed by local councils through the planning and development control processes. Sites which are significantly contaminated are strictly controlled at a state level under the framework established by the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 (CLM Act).

Site regulation and remediation

All known significantly contaminated sites in NSW are recorded on the Contaminated Land Management Public Register.

The number of contaminated sites regulated under the CLM Act continues to grow from 243 sites in June 2006 to 272 in June 2009. However the rate of increase has slowed from a peak of 34 additional sites in 2002–03 to about 12 a year now. Approximately 37 are reported to the NSW Government each year but after investigation usually less than half are found to be significantly contaminated and thus requiring regulation under the CLM Act. From June 2006 to June 2009 the number of remediated sites increased from 79 to 114 (Figure 5.3; Map 5.4), including sites with notices issued under sections 35 and 36 of the Environmentally Hazardous Chemicals Act 1985 (EHC Act).

Figure 5.3: Sites regulated and remediated under the CLM Act and EHC Act

Figure 5.3

Download Data

Source: DECCW data 2009


Map 5.4: Sites regulated and remediated under the CLM Act and EHC Act

The main contaminants at 46% of the regulated sites are hydrocarbons which include total petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Next are metals and metalloids, with 24% of sites affected, and halogenated organics, nutrients, pesticides and asbestos found at less than 10% of sites (Table 5.3). More than one class of contamination is generally present at regulated sites (Table 5.4).

Table 5.3: Contamination classes

Class of contamination




Metals and metalloids


Other halogenated organic compounds*










Source: DECC data 2008

Notes: * Excludes halogenated pesticides
** Includes some halogenated organic compounds

Table 5.4: Land uses of sites currently regulated under the CLM Act in NSW

Land use

Affected sites (%)

Typical contaminants

Petrol stations


Petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylenes

Chemical industry


Various organic chemicals, metals



Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cyanide, metals



Metals, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, methane

Metal processing works


Metals, volatile organic compounds

Other petroleum works


Petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylenes

Other industry


Various contaminants



Various contaminants

Source: DECC data December 2008

Contaminated sites are usually identified when land is being redeveloped for another use or when contaminants enter groundwater and are detected in bore water or watercourses.

A person is required to notify the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW) when they become aware of contamination either as the owner of the site or the person whose activities have contaminated the land. Guidelines on the relevant criteria regarding the duty to notify DECCW are being updated to take into account changes to the CLM Act in 2008.

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Contaminated food and produce

Identifying problem areas

The Australian Total Diet Study, which publishes comprehensive data every two years (for example, FSANZ 2008), consistently shows that consumers' dietary exposure to a range of food chemicals, including pesticide residues, is well below Australian and international reference health standards and does not pose a risk to human health and safety.

Samples of animal and plant food products in Australia, including meats, grains, honey and fish, are also regularly tested under the National Residue Survey (NRS) program for the presence of chemical residues and environmental contaminants such as heavy metals. Chemical and commodity combinations for sampling are self-nominated by participating industries. Over the past decade, the results from the NRS have consistently demonstrated very low levels of pesticides and contaminants in agricultural products. During 2007–08, samples were collected from 20 grain commodities and products, pulses and oilseeds, and five horticultural commodities. The NRS grains program was expanded in 2007–08 with the addition of a further 13 commodities, through agreement with grain growers. Levies are now established for these commodities, so that all tradeable grains will now be tested as part of the NRS random residue testing program.

In 2007–08, the overall rate of compliance remained very high. Some 4280 grain and horticultural product samples were analysed, with only 21 samples (less than 0.5%) exceeding maximum residue limits (MRLs) for agvet-listed chemicals (DAFF 2008).

The NSW Government also delivers a range of intervention strategies designed to ensure that risk management objectives for pesticide residues in food produced in NSW are met. In 2005 the Government established the CleanFresh research program to investigate the pesticide residue status of selected high-risk fruit and vegetable crops, and to link the results to on-farm pesticide application practices and pest management advisory programs.

Large supermarket chains and some canning and packing industries conduct their own quality assurance programs for produce, although data from these programs is not publicly available.

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Intensive chemical use

Significantly contaminated land is generally the result of the inappropriate use, handling and disposal of hazardous materials or other unintended side-effects. In some cases, it may relate to practices previously seen as appropriate but which are now regarded as poor. It is often associated with past industries, such as gasworks (12% in NSW), chemical industries (12%) and metal processing works (9%), but can also occur as the result of present-day activities, such as at service stations and depots with underground tanks (23%) and landfill sites (11%) (Table 5.4).

An example of a significant contaminated site from the past is the former Pasminco lead smelter which operated for 128 years until 2003 on a site at the north-western end of Lake Macquarie near Boolaroo. During that time the smelter generated widespread lead contamination both on and off the site. Evidence of contamination was found in the sediments in nearby Cockle Creek and Cockle Bay, in the groundwater, and in the soil of backyards in the surrounding residential area. The contamination was attributed to surface runoff, off-site dust deposition, and slag from the smelter being widely used in the local community for fill and other applications.

Parts of the site have been remediated and it is in progress in other areas. A Lead Abatement Strategy has been developed to address the impact of lead dust deposited on residential properties in Boolaroo.

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Extensive chemical use: agricultural and veterinary chemicals in the food chain

Inappropriate or illegal chemicals used in farming, silviculture and horticulture, and leakage from contaminated land can leave residues and contaminants in produce intended for human or animal consumption. These residues include antibiotics, growth hormones, antihelminthics, fungicides, insecticides, herbicides and fumigants. Environmental contaminants include metals, mycotoxins and persistent organic pollutants (DAFF 2005).

Air pollution and poor quality irrigation water are also potential sources of contamination. Cadmium in agriculture is of particular concern. It can result from the use of gypsum and fertilisers (including sewage sludge and manure) (DPI 2005a) and may be mobilised as soils become more acidic.

Some chemicals, such as dioxins and heavy metals like lead and cadmium, are cumulative in organisms and ecosystems and may continue to affect produce for many years and some distance from the original source of application or leakage. For example, dioxin residues found in bottom-feeding fish and crustaceans in Sydney Harbour (DPI 2006) can be traced back to Homebush Bay industrial sites contaminated over the previous 100 years (DEC 2006, pp.181–3).

Chemical contamination can have serious impacts on human health and also jeopardise domestic and foreign trade. Cadmium, for example, may cause kidney damage in humans (DPI 2005b). There is a nationally agreed set of standards for residues in food and produce based on Australian standard maximum residue limits (MRLs) and extraneous residue limits (DAFF 2005). There is usually a large safety margin between MRLs and the related health standards of acceptable daily intake levels.

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Extensive chemical use: chemicals in the built environment

Thousands of chemicals are used in our homes, offices, appliances, sporting equipment and medicines. There is the potential of acute and chronic health effects for people and ecosystems, but specific information is scarce: for example, only 7% of the top 300 industrial chemicals have the data required to screen for hazard assessments.

Therapeutic chemicals may have an impact on the environment through disposal into sewerage systems and solid waste streams, resulting in eventual release to waterways or land. However, significant environmental effects from these chemicals have not been observed in NSW.

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NSW Contaminated Land Management Framework

The NSW Government's CLM Framework provides an integrated package of laws, guidelines and administrative arrangements for the management of contamination at sites across the state. Key elements cover laws, regulations, environmental planning instruments, associated programs and publications.

The CLM Act deals with the investigation and, where appropriate, remediation of contaminated land. The Act provides that the Government can declare land as contaminated, or order the person responsible for it to take investigative or corrective actions, or enter into voluntary agreements. The CLM Act also establishes a hierarchy of responsibility for investigating and remediating contaminated land, and allows the Government to accredit site auditors of contaminated land who are able to provide independent verification that sites have been investigated and remediated. Changes to the legislation to streamline and strengthen the provisions of the management framework commenced on 1 July 2009.

State Environmental Planning Policy No. 55 – Remediation of Land (SEPP 55) was created under provisions of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and complements the CLM Act. SEPP 55 provides consistent statewide planning controls for remediation of land. It facilitates and controls the remediation of land and the provision of information to planning and environmental authorities, and the public.

Managing Contaminated Land: Planning Guidelines (DUAP & EPA 1998) assist planning authorities to ensure that land is cleaned up to allow its safe use. Proposed revisions to the guidelines – Managing Land Contamination: Guidelines – Consultation draft (DoP & DECC 2008) – lists industries that may cause land contamination.

The Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 controls the operation of polluting activities to ensure that the environment is protected. The use of agricultural chemicals is controlled under the Pesticides Act 1999.

The Protection of the Environment Operations (Underground Petroleum Storage Systems) Regulation 2008 focuses on a preventative approach to minimise the risk of soil and groundwater contamination (see Water 6.4). It is anticipated that the Regulation will help to identify new contaminated sites due to the requirement to install groundwater wells and monitoring equipment to detect product loss.

The Contaminated Land Management Program was established in 2001 to facilitate remediation of land contamination declared significant under the CLM Act. To date the program has contributed funds of around $9.4 million for the investigation and remediation of 19 significantly contaminated sites. Most of the sites are former gasworks and funding has been provided to assist councils, which were often the gasworks' operators, to address site contamination. The program has been successful and will continue.

The Sustainable Business Program provides industry-specific information guides for industry on managing its potential environmental impacts and improving environmental performance. The brochures summarise NSW environmental law applying to specific industries and provide practical 'how to' information for each key environmental issue. They provide clear solutions for dealing with air emissions, hazardous waste, and noise and water pollution, and preventing site contamination with case studies and contacts for further information.

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Keeping residues out of food and produce

There is a strong framework of intergovernmental and industry cooperation, including setting MRLs and conducting regular compliance monitoring for most types of food and produce. Agencies are working together to further strengthen the existing framework. The NSW Food Authority is responsible for food safety under the Food Act 2003, including setting policy on chemical residues and contaminants in food. Regulation of agricultural chemical use under the Pesticides Act 1999 and Fertilisers Act 1985, and government policies relating to biosolids management, are playing an important role in minimising chemical residues and contaminants in food produce (EPA 2003, pp.123–4). Food safety is reinforced through a network of local government environmental health programs that include inspection and education.

The NSW Government has developed the Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Amendment (Residue Wastes) Regulation 2005 to protect agricultural land and produce and farmers from the actions of unscrupulous operators distributing harmful waste under the guise of fertiliser. The Regulation aims to enhance the production of safe food and fibre products by prohibiting the application of potentially harmful industrial by-products and wastes on land used for growing crops and other plants. The prohibition does not apply if the waste is lawfully sold as a soil improving agent (fertiliser or liming material) or as a product containing trace elements within the meaning of the Fertilisers Act 1985, and it complies with the prescribed maximum contaminant levels. Some wastes may also be exempted from the prohibition where it can be shown that they will not harm agriculture, the environment or human health.

The Government, in association with Flemington Market in Sydney and some industries, also conducts trace-back programs to determine the reason for any exceedence of residue limits and take steps to prevent a recurrence. Selected vegetables and fruit are purchased at the market for testing, enabling the source of any breaches of the limits to be identified and feedback provided to growers and regulators. Within farming systems that use chemicals, an integrated pest management approach is being promoted.

There has been a cooperative Government agency review of the current pesticides residue framework. The Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW undertook an industry-wide audit of NSW strawberry growers in December 2008. This showed a high level of compliance with the Pesticides Act 1999 and its Regulations. DECCW regularly investigates the use of pesticides in specific locations, such as macadamia farms, turf farms and golf courses, as well as their management practices in general, including record-keeping, training and the use of 1080 poison.

Mandatory training in safe pesticide use and record-keeping for all commercial and occupational users of pesticides (under the Pesticides Act 1999), in conjunction with improved labelling by manufacturers and industry education programs, has kept exceedence levels of pesticides in food low. In addition, the use of environmental management systems certified to the ISO 14001 standard has contributed to fewer exceedences as growers employ an internationally accepted process for identifying and minimising potential environmental hazards.

The organic and biodynamic farming industry, which aims to produce goods without the use of manufactured chemicals, is growing in Australia. Although national grower numbers have steadied at around 1700 since 2000 (with NSW having the most, nearly 900), output has been steadily growing at nearly 20% per year since 1990 (BFA 2007). The impact of this growth on overall residue levels is unclear.

To manage the off-site impacts of chemical use in silviculture, such as chemical runoff into catchments, certification and additional constraints and monitoring have been introduced into many plantation forests.

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New areas of management

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are due to be phased out, with the Polychlorinated Biphenyls Management Plan (EPHC 2002) requiring that industry consigns for treatment all materials containing PCBs at concentrations ≥50 milligrams per kilogram within one year of their removal from use. A survey of NSW industry indicates good progress towards this deadline.

At the national level, the Productivity Commission's Chemicals and Plastics Regulation report (PC 2008) has made recommendations to improve the national management of risks to the environment from industrial chemicals. Following this recommendation, Australian environment ministers, through the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC) and the Council of Australian Governments, have agreed to establish a national environmental chemicals standards-setting body. The environment ministers have also signed an agreement to improve management of industrial chemicals across four key action areas:

  • assessment of chemicals
  • environmental management and controls for identified chemical risks
  • information flow and feedback
  • strategic priority-setting for early risk identification and management.

Genetically modified organisms

Within Australia, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are regulated by various federal agencies including the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, Therapeutic Goods Administration, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. These agencies manage the approval and use of both GMOs and genetically modified products. They assess the risk posed to human health and the environment by GMOs and genetically modified products as part of the approval process. If the risk can not be mitigated, the substance is not approved.

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Future directions

The NSW Government is working on a range of strategies to prevent the pollution of land. A number of industries have been identified where current practices may lead to premises becoming contaminated sites. Government seeks to reduce the number of contaminated sites in the long term by providing information to these industries about best-practice environmental management.

Other preventative approaches will include more auditing of specific industry sectors, review of licence conditions, and training in implementing industry best practice. Government continues to work cooperatively with stakeholders, such as industry-representative bodies and local councils, to ensure that proposed preventative strategies are appropriate for these industries.

Consumer expectations for safe and wholesome food products are expected to increase the adoption of industry-based quality assurance programs delivering improved practices for pesticide use and minimisation of residues and microbial contamination.

Introduction of food safety standards will further reduce opportunities for the contamination of food as it moves along the supply chain. Increasing adoption of integrated pest and disease management programs, biological controls and new-generation environmentally friendly pesticides offers additional opportunities to minimise contamination.

The National Framework for Chemicals Environmental Management has identified a need to develop better linkages between the national industrial chemicals regulator (the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme) and state and territory environment agencies. This EPHC initiative should bring regulatory certainty and consistency for industry and improve feedback on implementation of national chemical control recommendations.

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