The NSW government's WestConnex Delivery Authority has jumped the gun on works at a huge contaminated landfill site it plans to turn into a massive motorway interchange in inner Sydney.
WestConnex distributed a notice this week saying it was preparing to remove asbestos from the site that contains the equivalent of up to 70 swimming pools of the deadly substance. Trucks have already begun work carrying waste from the Alexandria Landfill site in St Peters and, according to a notice distributed to residents this week, will continue 6 days a week until December.
In response to questions about legal approval for the actions, the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) told New Matilda on Monday that it had issued 'a verbal notice' for 'clean-up' works on the site. But when asked for the date and name of person who had issued the notice, the spokesperson for the EPA Sera Osenfanu replied that she had "misspoken when I told you that a verbal notice had been issued" approving clean up works but that "we are working on putting this 'clean up notice' together…It is expected that it will be issued in the near future."
Although a notice to residents stated that buildings would be removed from the site, Osenfanu told New Matilda that the EPA was not aware of any planned demolition on the site. She stated, however, that the removal of waste is lawful because WestConnex holds a waste disposal license for the site.
The situation highlights the confused and secretive planning process for the WestConnex for which contracts are continually being awarded without any business case or Environmental Impact Statement having been completed.
While the NSW government continually asserts its determination to construct the 33 kilometre motorway, its own Department of Planning and Environment has not approved the work. An Environmental Impact Statement is being prepared which is specifically required to consider the remediation and suitability of the site for an interchange. Residents who say they were told by WestConnex that no work on the site would occur without planning approval are furious that work has begun on the site.
“This makes a mockery of the planning process, as the Director-General’s requirements for the WestConnex New M5 Environmental Impact Statement clearly state that it must include an assessment of the site, so we know exactly what toxic waste is there before it’s dug up and what will happen to it if it’s disturbed," said WestConnex Action Group spokesperson Janet Danby-Ward.
“We know from the James Hardie debacle that it’s impossible to properly contain the deadly micro fibres of asbestos that kill people… WestConnex is playing with our health; they are flouting planning laws; they are flouting environmental laws, and it is just mind-boggling that the Baird-Abbott Governments are happy to risk entire suburbs of Bernie Bantons on their watch," she said. (Bernie Banton who died in 2007 of asbestos related mesothelioma cancer, campaigned for recognition of the danger of the asbestos.)
Up until December 2014, the site was owned and operated by Ian Malouf's Dial a Dump. Malouf was well known as a supporter and donor to the NSW LNP. Then Premier Barry O'Farrell opened his giant new landfill site in Eastern Creek.
This history of community complaints and failure of companies associated with Dial a Dump to fully comply with EPA notices is well documented.
In 2011, the SMH reported that there had been five clean up notices in five years and that there was at least 170,000-cubic-metre stockpiles of waste contaminated with asbestos on the site. Dial a Dump was also prosecuted for allowing toxic leachate to enter a storm water canal.
In June last year, the company had still not fully complied with clean up orders and the EPA granted yet another extension of 12 months until July this year. But meanwhile, behind the scenes, the company and the government were conducting secret negotiations for WestConnex to take over the site. In December 2014 WestConnex compulsorily acquired the site and the company was allowed to immediately abandon the site without cleaning it up.
The waste licence, which is a complicated document with many requirements for regular sampling and ground cover procedures, was in limbo until it was finally transferred to WestConnex in March. The license requires the waste disposal facility to operate a dedicated public complaints line and to notify the public of its existence. This was not done.
In July, New Matilda asked the EPA what was happening with the site. On July 21, we were told that the site is "now closed. There is no public access to the site and it is monitored by a security service. …. Now that WDA has taken control of the site it will be required to complete the works. The material is secure and does not pose a risk to the surrounding community." According to the NSW tender database, Abacus Security is being paid approximately $350,000 to guard the site for a six month period.
But almost at the same time as New Matilda received these answers residents in St Peters received a notice stating that stabilisation, removal of stockpiles, and removal of buildings from the site would begin. No mention was made of asbestos.
The notice led to alarmed calls from residents to the media, WestConnex, and the company contracted to carry out work at the site, contamination specialist Ward Engineering. When contacted for comment, Ward Engineering said it was not able to answer questions which must all be directed through the general 1300 NSW government line.
On Monday night, a meeting of the WestConnex Action Group Newtown attended by 200 people called for all work to cease on the WestConnex and specifically the Alexandria Landfill site.
On Tuesday, St Peters residents received a new and more detailed notice setting out plans for 'clean up' work and asbestos removal. It states that the work will include removal of buildings but does not include remediation or disturbance of materials below the surface. Angry residents are actively monitoring the site and videoing trucks as they go enter and leave the site.
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