Contaminated Australian defence sites put spotlight on environmental record

Most of the non-residential sites being offloaded by the Department of Defence in its land disposal program are contaminated, a legacy of past environmental failings.

Defence has eight unwanted non-residential properties listed for disposal across Australia, including former rifle ranges and armaments factories.

Defence has confirmed it is conducting investigations at the majority of the sites to determine the “nature and extent” of contamination.

There is no suggestion the contaminated land poses any immediate risk to human health, and the extent of contamination varies from minor to heavy, depending on the site.

But the state of the land has again raised questions about defence’s history of environmental management, which has been criticised in audit reports spanning a decade.

Audits have found insufficient environmental monitoring, inadequate site management plans, poor handling of waste and hazardous substances, and a “general attitude that environmental issues were a low priority”.

The reports include examples of the improper disposal of toxic waste, the uncontrolled discharge of contaminants into stormwater drains, uncontrolled dumping, inadequate records for hazardous wastes and asbestos, and the leaching of lead and heavy metal from firing ranges into groundwater.

One report, published by the national audit office in 1995-96, found that defence tended to wait until it was selling off sites to investigate or remediate contamination – a claim defence has denied.

One block being sold by defence is a 127.8-hectare Maribyrnong site, a former explosives factory.

The federal and state governments see the land as a “major strategic redevelopment opportunity”, largely because it’s the largest remaining urban infill site in metropolitan Melbourne, with room for 6,000 homes.

But the land is known to be heavily contaminated.

Defence used more than 130 chemicals to make armaments at the Maribyrnong site and first discovered contamination in 1991. The first stage of remediation was not finished until December 2015.

A report from the now-defunct Australian Defence Industries body showed the presence of a heavily contaminated drainage gully on one part of the Maribyrnong site in 1994.

“Almost all of the facility’s surface drainage discharged into the Maribyrnong river through the gully,” the report said. “Visual and olfactory evidence indicated that the gully was contaminated.

“The gully was particularly unsightly, consisting of a black, sludgy, oily sediment. In addition it was found to be contaminated with elevated levels cadmium, copper, lead and zinc.”

An internal 1994 ADI memorandum about stormwater drainage strategy for the Maribyrnong site revealed that there had been a treatment facility that allowed all low flows to go through “treatment for grease and oil separation”, however “storm-flows bypassed this system and went directly to the gully discharge”.

In Senate estimates earlier this year, the deputy secretary of defence, Steve Grzeskowiak, said the initial remediation of the site had been completed on a 13-hectare portion, at a cost of $4m to $5m.

Grzeskowiak also confirmed in estimates that a “specialised remediation” project was under way on an 11-hectare portion of the site, with the help of the US army, at an estimated cost of $54.9m. The vast majority of remediation at the site will be left to whoever buys it.

“We’re making it quite clear that the bulk of the remediation of the site we would expect to be done by the purchaser,” Grzeskowiak said.

In at least one case, legacy contamination has contributed to defence selling land for a pittance. The 170-hectare Mount Vincent rifle range, a site in Queensland that is contaminated with lead, was this year sold for a nominal $1 fee to the Mackay regional council.

Contamination is also causing difficulties at the site of the Bulimba barracks in Brisbane. Bulimba sits on the Brisbane riverfront and defence’s attempts to sell the land to developers have been repeatedly delayed. Defence completed an environmental investigation of the site in 2015, which is not public.

But a synopsis obtained by Guardian Australia identified a string of potential sources of low-level contamination.

“There are possibly three underground storage tanks remaining on the site. If present, they would be greater than 40 years old and the likelihood of them leaking is high (with subsurface impact likely).”

It also found possible “waste burials” and asbestos in material around one building.

Reports have previously suggested there was a radiation leak at the site, but earlier investigations have cleared Bulimba of any radiological contamination.

A fact sheet published by defence on Bulimba classifies the contamination as “low risk” and “minor”.

Labor MP Terri Butler has been asking defence for details about the contamination and remediation plans for the Bulimba barracks since 2015. She wrote to the defence personnel minister, Darren Chester, last month, saying: “Despite assurances from your predecessor as minister for defence that defence has ‘undertaken the recommended remediation work to address contaminants unique to defence activities’, I have seen no detail of the remediation work that has been undertaken. Nor have I seen any information about any second stage environmental investigation that may have occurred.”

Butler is awaiting a reply but told Guardian Australia: “The government has been evasive, unforthcoming with information and unspecific about the remediation they have done. What seems clear is that they have done remediation only for contamination ‘unique’ to defence, which suggests there is still asbestos at the site.”

It is understood the second part of the environmental investigation is still being completed, which has stalled the release of the entire report. The government may also argue the report’s release is constrained by commercial-in-confidence arrangements, should the property be sold to developers.

In a statement, defence said legacy contaminations were not unique to its land. A spokesman said the contamination was the result of “historical military and land management practices” that were also common to industrial sites in the same era.

The kinds of practices seen in the past – including hazardous waste disposal and the uncontrolled discharge of contamination into stormwater drains – were no longer permitted, a spokesman said.

“Defence has had a long history of successfully conducting remediation to protect human health and the environment,” the spokesman said.

Defence said its decision to remediate sites before sale depended on the extent of contamination and the proposed future use of the sites.

“Many of the contaminants on the defence estate exist on brownfield industrial sites and industry is well-equipped to manage the risks posed by this contamination commensurate with their future development objectives,” the spokesman said.