Waiting for the messiah but in the meantime, what do we do with the hazardous waste?

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Ian D. Rae

History and Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne

1. Introduction

The advent of the Messiah who would deliver the Hebrews into the promised land was long foretold in Jewish culture and is a recurrent theme of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. Despite the decline in church membership and biblical study, many of these concepts have survived in our language and at least a passing familiarity with the Bible and Shakespeare is needed if you are to have full command of the English language … or to tackle The Times crossword.

Ever the devoted academic, I went looking for the appropriate reference and found it in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 61, which is generally agreed to have been written around 700 B.C. Isaiah prophesied, and I quote from that literary masterpiece, the King James version of 1610, that 'in the acceptable year of the Lord' men would receive 'beauty for ashes' and would 'build the old wastes, … raise up the former desolations and … repair the waste cities'.

The snag, of course, was that no time was given for the emergence of the Messiah who would bring all this about. In matters of faith, the Messiah is commonly believed to have been Jesus Christ, but if that is the case then you would have to say that a lot of the Messiah's work remains to be done. Specifically, in the matter of hazardous waste, we are still waiting, but like good religionists (not just Christians) we wait in hope, if sometimes in sorrow.

2. Hazardous Waste Management in Victoria

Through the 1980s and the 1990s, we knew in Victoria that our industries were producing more hazardous waste than we had the capacity to deal with. One side of this equation was waste generation – companies were finding it economical to generate waste and send it off to a prescribed waste landfill. On the other side was the fact that the highest-level landfills (at Tullamarine and Lyndhurst) were filling up, and no new site was in view. Various writers commented on the issues involved and the institutional arrangements to deal with them, but there was a section of the community that felt the problem existed because the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) was 'too soft on industry'. This notion was rejected by scholars who addressed the situation (R. Goodman and N. Low, 'The Management and Disposal of Hazardous Waste in Victoria', Urban Policy and Research, 1995, 13(1), 48-56) but it persisted in the community, where there was little understanding of the complexity of the issues and simplistic 'solutions' were popular.

The major reason that new landfill sites were hard to find was civic resistance to specific locations, underpinned by a more general opposition to the idea that hazardous waste was a necessary concomitant to industrial production. The issues were clearly exemplified by community resistance to a proposal by the CSR company to use an old quarry at Werribee, in Melbourne's outer south western suburbs, as a hazardous waste facility. Werribee citizens conducted a brilliant campaign against the CSR proposal, beginning with their labeling the proposed facility a Toxic Dump (thus implying careless or thoughtless behaviour on behalf of the eventual operators) and ending not only with the withdrawal of the proposal but with a Government review of the hazardous waste problem. Along the way, the campaigners held a number of well-attended meetings, won over the their local Council which had at first supportred the proposal, picketed the CSR shareholder meeting in July 1998, and received support from the Unions who agreed to a boycott on construction of the facility.

Accounts of the struggle against the proposed facility – a number of which are easily located by a Google search of the internet - constitute a textbook of community activism. The Werribee group – Western Residents Against Toxic Dump (WRATD), later evolving into the Western Region Environment Centre – was led by Harry van Moorst, a veteran of public campaigns against Australia's participation in the Vietnam

War and long-time community activist. As well as his active participation, Van Moorst wrote at first cogently about he struggle, later in more reflective mode, and quickly became the spokesman for the environment movement on the 'brown' issues of hazardous waste. A major thrust of his leadership was to go beyond the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) to a NIABY (Not In Anyone's Back Yard) response. At the same time, however, the group recognised the need for hazardous waste facilities (at least in the medium term while industry and government found the path to the promised land), and pressed for appropriate technological solutions to the problem of storing hazardous materials for very long periods in such a way that they would pose no measurable risk to human health or the environment.

Speaking at a forum held in May 1998 by the People's Committee for Melbourne, van Moorst introduced his subject with 'On a cold Monday evening in early May 1998, 15,000 residents of Werribee gathered at the local racecourse to vigorously oppose the Victorian State government's decision to allow a toxic dump in the municipality'. This was not the first meeting at the racecourse. Standing on the back of a truck, I chaired an earlier one in May 1996. There were fewer people there that first night, perhaps 500, but it was just as cold! The reactions were just as strong, too, as we heard presentations by the company, the Commissioners in charge of the city and former mayor of Werribee, the EPA and representatives of WRATD. Why were we meeting at the racecourse? On that occasion, because the city of Werribee (it became Wyndham soon after this) had denied permission for the group to use municipal facilities; in 1998 I'm sure the reason was that no hall large enough for such a crowd was available in the district

Two Deakin University academics conducted a social impact assessment of the proposal, as part of meeting Victorian Government legislative requirements, and reflected on this in an internet article in which they observe that the 'community consultation process associated with the Environment Impact Assessment was seen as totally inadequate'. A very detailed, if distinctly partisan, account of the Werribee struggle has been published Paul Strangio, and forms a valuable record of thoughts and deeds, although the company declined to contribute its view or make available its records. Reading Strangio's book will help the interested party to understand what happened next.

3. Victorian Government Review of Hazardous Waste Management

In August EPA Victoria had produced a report on the prescribed waste generation by Victorian industry. It showed annual generation at 600,000 tonne – a quantity that Government publicity translated into a more colloquial unit (that has resonance this month) as being equivalent to 240 Olympic-size swimming pools. With the prospect of the Tullamarine landfill (opened about 30 years ago) being unable to take wastes after the end of the century, and the Lyndhurst facility (established in the mid-1980s) eventually filling up, the EPA recommended that another site be established, preferably in Melbourne's western suburbs.

In February 1999, the Kennett Government produced a statement on hazardous waste in which they announced

· a $10/tonne levy on hazardous waste going to landfill (taking the cost to around $90/tonne), with the proceeds being used to fund other initiatives;

· new legislation and regulation to encourage re-use, recycling, and energy recovery;

· encouragement for cleaner production and for soil remediation; and

· establishment of a consultative committee to provide advice on (among other things) 'options for disposal and management of industrial wastes, and for appropriate sites'.

The Hazardous Waste Consultative Committee was chaired by Government MP, Hon Geoff Coleman, and included

· opposition MP, Hon Caroline Hogg

· Robert Joy, Executive Director of EPA Victoria

· Brian Boyd, Trades Hall Council

· Harry van Moorst, Werribee Residents Against Toxic Waste

· Nicole Williams, Plastic and Chemicals Industry Association

· government officials Kevin Love, Leigh Phillips and Ian Munro; and

· Ian Rae, a chemist who had recently retired from an executive position in a Victorian university.

While the Committee went about its business, gathering evidence, commissioning specialist reports, and considering scenarios, a State election took place, and the Kennett Government was replaced by the first Bracks Government. In a heartening display of bipartisan respect for the seriousness of the problems the Committee was addressing, it was invited to continue its work. Coleman, who had retired at the election was to continue as Chairman, and Hogg (who also retired at that time) was replaced by (now Government MP) Hon Geoffrey Howard.

When it reported in April 2000, the Consultative Committee made a number of recommendations, including

· establishment of soil treatment facilities, since contaminated soil (largely coming from redevelopment of brownfield sites in and close to the city) made up approximately 35% of the prescribed/hazardous waste;

· development of repositories for wastes that needed containment for relatively short periods until technologies or facilities were available to properly manage them;

· phasing out of landfilling, to be replaced by containment facility/ies for long term storage of waste treated so as to reduce risks;

· upgrading of the trancert tracking scheme to provide better data, and making this publicly available; and

· the establishment of buffer distances around new soil treatment and containment facility/ies.

The Committee also made recommendations for implementation of the recommendations, including the continuation of its own existence or establishment of a new advisory body of stakeholders, and suggested timelines for new development. These timelines turned out to be wildly optimistic.

The Victorian Government responded, first, by releasing the committee report for public comment. The Minister for Conservation & Environment, Hon Sherryl Garbutt, especially invited submissions relating to three of the recommendations:

· buffer distances around hazardous waste treatment facilities,

· the proposed timetable for implementing key recommendations of the report, and

· mechanisms to ensure the involvement and effective on-going consultation with all stakeholders in policy implementation.

After considering the community's responses, the Government in December 2000 released a fifteen-page public document in which comment was provided on each recommendation, and almost complete acceptance of the report was indicated. From that point, the action divided into two streams. EPA Victoria was given responsibility for developing classification schemes, setting technical criteria for facilities of various kinds, and driving further the reduction in generation of hazardous wastes. Emphasis was placed on the use of the waste hierarchy, with actions running from re-use to long-term containment.

At this point, the Government assigned responsibility to the EPA for setting performance requirements and devising classification, while siting of new facilities became the responsibility of the Department of State and Regional Development which handed the task to its Office of Major Projects. In each case, an advisory committee was established to enable stakeholder input into the work of bureaucrats, but wider consultation was also expected in each case. I shall deal with each aspect of the work, in turn.

4. The work of the Environment Protection Authority

4.1 General considerations

In May 2001 the EPA formed its Prescribed Industrial Waste Advisory Committee (PIWAC) to work closely with officers of the Authority in the development of performance requirements for a range of facilities and of classification schemes for wastes. The project was closely related to ongoing efforts to bring about Cleaner Production and to a new project styled the 'Top 30' in which special attention was given to reducing generation of prescribed industrial waste by the 30 largest generators.

The PIWAC was chaired by Alan Seale, a chemical engineer recently retired from Orica Australia, and it had members from a wide range of constituencies. In the three years since its formation, the PIWAC has seen only small changes to its membership and so all members are mentioned below against their relevant categories:

· industry generators (Charles Almond)

· waste management industry (Barry Bowles, Roger Parker, Craig Hudson, Pam Keating)

· environment groups (Harry van Moorst, Peter Brotherton)

· toxicology (Susanne Tepe)

· trade unions (Brian Boyd)

· academia (Ian Rae)

All of these PIWAC members had been involved, in one way or another, in the management of hazardous substances and so collectively they provided a vast resource of knowledge about science, technology, industry and the development of public policy. Their appointments represent best practice in consultation, since they became involved at the start of the process and came to it with considerable knowledge of the tasks facing the EPA.

The PIWAC meets monthly but has also formed sub-groups that meet with specific EPA staff to advise on such issues as soils, containment facility criteria, and classification schemes. Following usual EPA practice, the staff (with advice from the PIWAC), prepare draft proposals which are published and often made the subject of public consultation meetings held in Melbourne and sometimes in non-metropolitan centres. Following review of the submissions received, and further consideration by EPA staff and the PIWAC, the EPA releases a final document and a 'response to comments' document. This process can be seen in the sequence of documents relating to grease interceptor trap waste - #890, #955 and #966. In some instances the sequence is preceded or accompanied by an Information Bulletin, as in the case of soils (#878, followed by #879) and classification by hazard (#923, and #922), both sequences being as yet incomplete.

In the case of the grease interceptor trap waste, the material is offensive rather than directly hazardous to human health or the environment, and it can be treated to recover nutrient value (when composted) or to recover useful fats and oils (recycling). These outcomes are mandated in #966, and consignment to landfill is banned except – for a limited period until appropriate facilities are established by industry – in the Gippsland region.

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