Negligence, corruption, and toxic landfill

Issue 

BY SEAN MARTIN-IVERSON

PERTH — The Shire of Serpentine-Jarrahdale, near the Peel Inlet south of Perth, promotes itself to potential residents and eco-tourists with the slogan, "Explore the beauty". In its "Vision for the Future", the shire council emphasises the need to "...manage responsibly today for a better tomorrow". The shire's water resource management scheme has "the ultimate goal... to create a sustainable future for the Peel-Harvey catchment".

Yet, along with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the council has facilitated the transformation of more than 50 acres of land, including formerly pristine wetlands, into a toxic dump.

The major culprit is the deceptively named McLean Recycling Industries Pty, which runs the site. According to Lee Bell from the Contaminated Sites Alliance, MRI is typical of a number of shady operators running landfill scams in WA:

"[The company boss] sets himself up as a 'recycler', buys up land or convinces landowners to accept landfill, then drives in the gate and just dumps demolition material all over the place. You end up with massive piles of waste, up to — or often exceeding — the legal limit, which not only makes a mess of the area but contains all sorts of toxic chemicals. In this case, the outfit has gone bankrupt, leaving a huge mess for the administrators to deal with, but the operator is just setting himself up to do it all over again."

However, both Lee Bell and local resident Paul Nield place much of the blame on the shire council and the DEP. Bell points out that the DEP, supposedly charged with protecting the environment, has "presided over the creation of a contaminated site". Nield accuses the Council, DEP and successive state environment ministers of negligence, dishonesty and corruption in relation to the site.

MRI originally obtained council permission for two hectares of "clean or inert fill", to a height of 0.8 metres, for the construction of a timber mill in the area of Bird and Jackson roads. However, the dump soon expanded to eight hectares at 1.3 metres high. Families on adjoining properties noticed that the pollution was spreading to their land and water. Two families were later encouraged to "make the best of it" and accepted landfill on their properties as well.

As it turns out, the fill was neither "clean" nor "inert". Early on, it was noticed that the material contained asbestos, which MRI was not licenced to accept. In a public meeting, the shire council claimed that "it was alright" as the asbestos had all been covered up. However, the WA health department noted that "asbestos could be found generally throughout the site".

In 1997, the bio-accumulative carcinogen Dieldrin (used as an insecticide) was found in water running off site at 0.004 ug/L. Each year, higher levels have been found — 0.08 ug/L in 1998, 0.16 ug/L in 1999, 0.32 ug/L in 2000, and 0.4 ug/L in 2001. Dieldrin and Chlorpyrifos have been found in dangerous levels in surrounding streams and groundwater, including in the bore water that a neighbouring family was drinking.

Despite such evidence, the Waters and Rivers Commission gave approval to MRI to discharge into a local waterway, justifying the decision on the basis that no stock accessed the water. According to Nield: "Unfortunately, sheep cannot read WRC reports. We showed the WRC photos of white woolly things going 'Baa!' that were drinking the water, and they stressed out saying that [the sheep] shouldn't [do that]. Too late!" About 30 sheep died, but their carcasses mysteriously disappeared before tissue samples could be taken for testing.

Despite two rather farcical parliamentary investigations into the dump, neither MRI nor the DEP have been called to account for the pollution. The DEP and shire council have been more than willing to give retrospective approval for MRI's over-dumping, and the matter of the illegal dumping of asbestos has never been properly dealt with.

Bell points out that the DEP "signed off despite the lack of a proper drainage system" and is responsible for some "dubious testing of the discharge pond".

MRI has never put in the drainage system required under DEP licence conditions — although MRI boss Gordon McLean and DEP representatives told the parliamentary committee that all such conditions were met. In his submission to the shire for retrospective approval, McLean admitted that the drainage system was never constructed. This was not included in the shire minutes, but was recorded by some observers.

According to Nield, the failure to construct a proper drainage system is a "Tier one DEP irregularity that could be deemed to be criminal negligence."

"However, since the DEP is obviously implicated in this vast negligence and most serious breach of trust", Nield added, "it is unlikely they would initiate any action".

Instead, the drains from the MRI site run off into the groundwater, thus contaminating the neighbours' bore water, and into the running stream, public access to which is now banned.

The two neighbouring families which were convinced to make up for their losses by accepting fill on their land were threatened with DEP fines of $365,000 if the waste was not removed after three months, with additional charges of $65,000 per day after that. MRI received no such threats despite the waste material being identical.

However, the fines were dropped after the families entered into an agreement with MRI, which included a secrecy clause. It is known that this "solution" involved transporting some of the polluted waste material, containing asbestos, and burying it in a nearby wetlands site. The shire council accepted this proposal as long as there was monitoring of the new site. Yet when the monitoring didn't happen, it was neither enforced nor encouraged in practice by the council.

This plan was cooked up by MRI's "environmental" consultants, Alan Tingay and Associates. This company is run by Noel Davies, who was previously the DEP officer in charge of overseeing the MRI development.

Earlier this year, MRI went into administration with $318,000 in debt to the Australian Tax Office, $500,000 to the Forest Products Commission, and $870,000 to Bankwest. According to Bell and Nield, the former proprietor is currently encouraging a model aeroplane club to accept landfill on their property.

At a creditors' meeting in June, the minutes recorded council representatives "referred to the company's previous landfill operations and noted that the company had exceeded its approved landfill capacity... the company's application for retrospective approval of the landfill is currently being assessed, [but] aside from that issue [council representatives] were not aware of any other environmental concerns".

From Green Left Weekly, October 2, 2002.
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