By Benjamin Preiss
A western suburbs council is warning of an environmental crisis over a rapidly-filling rubbish tip caught in a legal impasse over its expansion.
The Wyndham City Council wants the state government to intervene and prevent a “metropolitan-wide waste management crisis” after a community group launched legal action against plans to extend the Werribee tip.
The council says the landfill space is quickly running out and it will have to stop accepting waste from other councils by November.
But the Western Region Environment Centre, which is challenging the expansion, says the rubbish accumulating at the site is becoming intolerable for residents and an environmental risk.
The group wants the council to scale back the expansion and place greater emphasis on recycling and resource recovery.
A report by Environmental Justice Australia to be released on Monday found that communities living in outer suburban communities near landfill sites, particularly in Melbourne’s west, need better protection from the ill effects of expanding rubbish tips.
The report argues for stronger legal avenues for community groups to seek financial penalties from organisations that commit environmental breaches.
It comes as Victoria faces a separate recycling crisis due to China’s move to ban imports of contaminated materials earlier this year, placing enormous pressure on the state’s recycling system.
The Environmental Protection Authority approved the construction of a new “cell” to contain waste at the Werribee tip in October last year.
But that expansion was halted, with the appeal to be heard in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in coming months.
Wyndham Mayor Peter Maynard described the tip as a “waste management hub of state significance” but the appeal by the Western Region Environment Centre meant the site would be closed to other councils by November.
“The Werribee landfill currently receives around 500,000 tonnes per annum of waste for disposal from councils and businesses across Melbourne,” he said.
“The simple fact is that we are going to run out of space because of the ongoing delay.”
Western Region Environment Centre director Harry van Moorst said the council had known for several years the community would oppose the increased size, allowing it to make other plans.
He said the smell had become a major problem for nearby residents, who were also concerned about increased truck traffic.
“It’s no longer landfill. It’s a waste mountain,” he said.
Mr van Moorst said the piling rubbish increased the risk of toxic substances leaching from the site.
He urged the council to focus on recovering recyclable materials and reducing waste sent to landfill.
Mr van Moorst estimated the legal challenge would cost up to $30,000 – a massive burden for a non-profit group.
The Environmental Justice Australia report, Raising a Stink, warns Victoria has been lagging behind other countries in banning materials including fluorescent globes from landfill.
The report’s author, Chris Atmore, said the cost and complexity of legal challenges often deterred community groups from pursuing environmental breaches.
The report also said the EPA relied too heavily on industries to “self-report” environmental problems.
But EPA chief executive Nial Finegan said current regulations allowed small quantities of fluorescent products from residential properties to be placed in landfill although globes and tubes would have to be recycled from July.
He said the authority had a “range of mechanisms” to report pollution problems.
“Members of the public are actively encouraged to report and EPA authorised officers make regular and frequent independent inspections,” he said.
The authority was increasingly using drones, aerial photography and was even considering employing satellite technology to investigate breaches, Mr Finegan said.
Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the government had increased funding for the EPA, given it new powers and introduced legislation to make it more modern and efficient.
“These measures are making the EPA more responsive and effective and better protecting Victoria’s environment and people’s health,” she said.
Published by The Age on 25 March 2018