Australia Closes Orica Plant After Chemical Leaks

Environment officials ordered the world's largest explosives maker to shut down one of its plants a day after the company was charged over a gas leak.

SYDNEY (AP) -- Australian environment officials ordered Orica Ltd., the world's largest explosives maker, to shut down one of its plants Thursday, a day after the company was charged over a gas leak that exposed a community to a cancer-causing compound.

The New South Wales state Environment Protection Agency said the Melbourne-based company's performance at the plant near the coastal city of Newcastle had been unacceptable. Wednesday's charges against Orica came just hours before another leak at the plant sent two railyard workers to the hospital.

"Last night, I telephoned the CEO of Orica and I told him the performance of Orica was unsatisfactory and it needed to improve," Deputy Chief Executive of Environment Regulation Greg Sullivan said. "I also made clear that the series of events we've had at Orica are disturbing, and both the regulator and the community need to have confidence they can operate that plant safely."

Orica came under fire after a leak from the plant on Aug. 8 sent the carcinogen hexavalent chromium into the air. Traces of the compound were found in the Newcastle suburb of Stockton, sending residents into a panic.

The company did not inform the EPA until the next day that the leak had occurred. State health officials later said there was no increased risk of cancer to the community because of the leak, but furious residents accused the government of waiting too long to warn them of the potential dangers.

Hexavalent chromium gained notoriety after being featured in the Oscar-winning movie "Erin Brockovich," based on the true story of a woman who fought a U.S. company accused of leaking the contaminant into the groundwater of a small California town. The real Erin Brockovich has consulted with Australian lawyers looking into the Orica case.

On Wednesday, the EPA charged Orica with failing to properly operate the plant and failing to alert authorities fast enough about the August incident. Orica could face up to 2 million Australian dollars ($2 million) in fines if convicted on both charges.

Nicole Ekert, a spokeswoman for Orica, declined to comment on the charges.

Hours after the charges were announced Wednesday, there was an ammonia leak at the same plant. Two workers from a nearby railyard who were overcome by the fumes were hospitalized. Fire and rescue officials said there were no further health risks to the public from that leak.

Orica said in a statement that it had notified the EPA of Wednesday's leak and the incident was under investigation.

The company was ordered to appear in the state Land and Environment Court on Feb. 3.

Orica's shares were down 3.3 percent to AU$25.54 on the Australian stock exchange Thursday. The company, which has operations in about 50 countries, makes commercial explosives for use in the mining industry.