Emergency services are preparing for a major environmental and public health catastrophe after determining it is “likely” a mountain of potentially toxic industrial waste abandoned on the outskirts of Geelong will catch fire this summer.
Fairfax understands the now-defunct recycling centre in Lara, which contains 350,000 cubic meters of highly-flammable rubbish spread over an area the size of the MCG, has been rated by a government taskforce as one of the highest-risk waste stockpiles in the state.
Senior firefighters have warned the 12- to 14-metre stacks of construction and building debris, including large supplies of timber and woodchips, will be a “ticking time bomb” in this year’s bushfire season.
The former operator, David McAuliffe of C&D Recycling, had also failed to install any mandatory fire-suppression equipment such as functioning water tanks in defiance of repeated orders from council authorities, regulators and emergency services.
“[The Country Fire Authority] rates the likelihood of a fire event at this site as likely. Any fire that cannot be extinguished in a first attack would become a complex and long duration fire that would have a severe impact on the surrounding community, including the national and state rail networks and major highways leading into Geelong,” a CFA report said.
Strategic assessment and planning documents show the worst-case-scenario for a fire anticipates serious and widespread air, water and soil contamination, forcing evacuations of homes, businesses, schools and potentially disrupting operations at Avalon Airport.
It is estimated an out-of-control fire could burn for up to a month.
The now-defunct recycling centre is 1.2 kilometres from a residential housing estate in Lara and about three kilometres from Corio.
“Smoke from a fire this size could potentially expose people to ‘unhealthy’ or ‘hazardous’ air quality readings for short or extended periods of time up to 5km from the site,” according to the assessment prepared by Emergency Management Victoria.
“The long term impacts of contaminants in the soil and water courses is unknown but potentially substantial.”
The health and environmental risks are also aggravated by findings of a preliminary study that suggests the stockpiles are riddled with illegally dumped asbestos, tyres, household garbage, green waste and contaminated soil.
“We have no idea what is actually in the piles. We have to plan for the worst case scenario,” said Pat Geary, CFA’s operations officer for Corio.
“We’re going to have to chuck everything we’ve got at it right at the start. The weather conditions will make all the difference as well. It’s definitely got the potential to be a dirty, smoking smouldering fire that will burn for weeks.”
During a small fire at the C&D Recycling site in January, CFA ordered the immediate water-bombing of the pile by the helitanker, which is normally used in suppressing bushfires.
A multi-agency group comprising the CFA, Worksafe, Environmental Protection Agency, and the City of Greater Geelong have been creating a detailed response plan for the site.
“The reference group is well aware of the hazards posed by the stockpiles at the site and are developing emergency management plans to ensure the response to any fire or other incident is both prompt and specifically designed to deal with the hazards at the site,” an EPA spokesman said.
Among the preparations will be a major exercise to test the response plan ahead of what the CFA anticipates will be a “long, dry summer”.
The Lara site was identified as one of the state’s biggest waste-related fire hazards by the Victorian Government’s Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce, which was formed after the catastrophic fire at a recycling facility in Coolaroo last year.
The facility has been a problem for the council and regulators almost since it opened in an industrial estate west of Lara in 2013, sparking numerous enforcement and court actions.
In one recent proceeding brought to revoke C&D Recycling’s permit, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal found “little (if any) materials recycling has taken place on the land, and little (if any) material or waste has been transferred or removed from the land”.
The resulting build-up of waste and Mr McAuliffe’s inability to meet operational and safety standards led to a finding that there had been a “systematic and ongoing non-compliance” with 18 of the 37 conditions of the business’ permit.
It’s estimated it would cost $2 million just to make the site compliant with the basic fire safety conditions and up to $100 million to completely clean the site.
Mr McAuliffe said the C&D Recycling facility had been run “properly” and accused the local council of repeatedly attempting to frustrate a business they didn’t want in their area by attaching “unachievable” permit conditions that “set us up to fail”.
“This was not a dump-and-forget situation. To say it wasn’t recycling, that’s just not true,” he said. “In terms of the fire risk, absolutely, categorically we’re not Coolaroo. We are not 70 or 80 per cent plastic. It’s demolition material and demolition material only.”
The City of Greater Geelong recently failed in its bid to have the permit cancelled, with VCAT deciding that a staged enforcement process involving C & D and the landowner, the Australian Sawmilling Company (TASCO), to be the “least worst option” available.
Mr McAuliffe shuttered the business earlier this year and TASCO is now expected to fund remediation of the land and compliance with the permit conditions set by VCAT.
“You can see the legacy that has been left behind at Lara and it’s totally unacceptable,” EPA chief executive and chair of the audit taskforce, Nial Finegan, said.
“All efforts now are to ensure the legacy is short-lived and the site is brought into compliance ASAP. The new powers given to the EPA in the wake of (the Coolaroo fire) will assist.”
TASCO did not respond to a request for comment.