Queensland Alumina Limited fined $125,000 for 3rd environmental harm offence (22 December 2013)

Gladstone alumina refinery Queensland Alumina Limited (QAL) has been fined $125,000 and had a conviction recorded against them after pleading guilty to causing serious environmental harm.

In Gladstone Magistrates’ Court this week, QAL pleaded guilty to allowing the release of caustic aerosol spray on 12 November 2012 which damaged vehicles and nearby houses. The spray of alkaline slurry containing sodium hydroxide was released into the atmosphere from pipework on the QAL refinery site for up to one hour. There was evidence that the spray had travelled up to 3.5 kilometres.

Although there were no reports of people being harmed, QAL is believed to be facing a substantial compensation bill for property damage, having already paid out $106,239 with a further $40,000 in claims. The court also ordered that Conservation Volunteers Australia and Gladstone District Wildlife Carers Association each receive $31,250 from the fine. QAL was also ordered to pay $9237 in investigation and legal costs.

Queensland’s Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, Mr Andrew Powell, said the penalty and the contribution to the two organisations was justified. “QAL has pleaded guilty to one of the most serious offences under the Environmental Protection Act,” Mr Powell said. “It is particularly concerning and disappointing that this is the third time QAL had been fined for a similar offence.

“In 2010 the company was fined $90,000 when a torn pipe sent a plume of caustic fumes over an area of up to six kilometres causing paint damage to cars, and in 2000 it was fined $50,000 when an electrical failure caused a cloud of fly-ash and alumina to spread over Gladstone.”

Our comments: Queensland Alumina Limited, according to its website, is one of the world’s largest alumina refineries, producing around 3.95 million tonnes of the world’s best smelter grade alumina per year on behalf of its two shareholders, Rio Tinto Alcan (80 per cent) and Rusal (20 per cent).. The refinery covers 80 hectares of a 3,050 hectare site on the south-east outskirts of the city of Gladstone, and has an estimated replacement value of US $4 billion. Is a fine of $125,000 enough, given how inconsequential the sum is in the context of QAL’s profits, and given that this is the company’s third offence of causing environmental harm?