From Mildura to Swan Hill, north-west Victoria is gearing up for a massive fight against the government’s proposed “toxic dump” at Hattah/Nowingi, about 500km north-west of Melbourne.
Seven years earlier, in May 1998, more than 15,000 braved a cold Monday night at the Werribee Racecourse to forcefully tell the Kennett Government that they would fight the proposed “toxic dump” in Werribee. Ultimately successful, the communities actions paved the way for major policy reforms. Working with the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and a government appointed advisory committee, the Werribee activists succeeded in getting bi-partisan support for a new policy that banned future land-filling of hazardous waste and for the first time established criteria for the siting of hazardous waste facilities.
By December 2000 these policies were promulgated and the scene was set for major improvements in hazardous waste management, including reduction, recycling and long-term containment. Waste would be stored in containment facilities, not landfill, sited in accordance with new siting criteria.
Five years later there are still no contaminated soil recycling facilities, no long-term containment facilities and only marginal gains in hazardous waste minimisation. Instead of the promised reforms the government has approved extensions of the Tullamarine and Lyndhurst landfills to enable continued dumping of hazardous waste. What went wrong?
The scope of the problem
Each year Victorian industry produces about 120,000 tonnes of hazardous waste. This includes 30,000 - 40,000 tonnes of contaminated soils, much of which can be recycled, but at a cost. The rest is comprised of a range of wastes, some of which could be avoided, recycled, treated to be non-hazardous and some which has to be safely stored for an indefinite period. All this is practical, but again at a cost.
Traditionally this material has been dumped into landfill, mainly at Tullamarine and Lyndhurst. Landfill in Victoria is very cheap compared with more responsible waste management. The problem with cheap landfill is two-fold: it acts as a disincentive to developing more responsible, sustainable and safer technologies, and landfills inevitably leak into the environment. Even the US Environmental Protection Agency admitted in 1988 that, “Even the best liner and leachate collection system will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration … once the unit is closed, the bottom layer of the landfill will deteriorate over time and, consequently, will not prevent leachate transport out of the unit”.
In the US there are numerous leaking landfills contaminating groundwater and the surrounding environment. In the early 1990s the US Government was forced to set up a multimillion dollar “Superfund” to rehabilitate the worst of these leaking dumps, with mixed results at very high costs.
It is important that we understand the risk involved in the various types of hazardous waste: we should neither underestimate nor exaggerate the risk if we are to develop safe and effective management options. The mere mention of “toxic dumps” or “hazardous waste” creates substantial community angst. Perhaps previous tragedies, such as Love Canal and Bhopal, have made us fearful for our family’s health.
So how hazardous are these wastes? Some, such as PCBs, dioxins, various other organochloride compounds and various heavy metal wastes can be acutely dangerous to human and environmental health. These generally require considerable treatment before they can be safely stored. However much of the waste constitutes a chronic rather than acute risk. This means that while not creating an immediate health risk, protracted exposure even to small quantities, may lead to minor discomforts, such as skin or eye irritations, or to serious illnesses such as organ disease, cancer, fetal damage and nervous disorders. The risks to the environment can include toxicity to fish, bird and animal life as well as a substantial risk of toxic materials finding their way into the food chain thereby threatening human health.
While debate continues over the extent of the risk it is recognised that we have very limited knowledge of the toxicity of many of these substances. Only a small proportion of the thousands of chemicals involved in industrial waste have been studied for their hazard to human or environmental health, and even fewer have been studied in association with other potentially catalytic or synergistic substances that could substantially increase the risk. In addition, the bulk of the standards established are based on potential impact to a healthy adult. The impact on children has only recently been recognised as requiring substantial additional work.
Despite limited knowledge and ongoing debate there is a broad consensus, reflected by government policy, that all potentially hazardous wastes need to be responsibly and safely managed, and better than we have in the past.
In light of this the government’s policy to prevent future land-filling of hazardous waste and to establish a highly engineered, totally safe, long-term containment facility for hazardous waste, is to be supported. It is the most responsible approach in Australia and will put Victoria ahead of most of the world in hazardous waste management. That is if the policy ever gets implemented.