toxic waste
Factory fire in Campbellfield, Melbourne. (Image: AAP/Ellen Smith)

“Waste crime” has become big business. The rapid decline of Melbourne’s traditional manufacturing industry has spawned a dangerous new enterprise: the dumping of vast quantities of chemical waste inside empty warehouses and factories across the city’s west and north, hidden from the prying eyes of regulators. Many of these warehouses fail to meet even the most basic of safety standards.

The vast chemical stockpiles scattered across Melbourne’s northern suburbs may never have come to light but for investigations into Graham Leslie White — the jailed businessman linked with the illegal stockpiling of close to 20 million litres of toxic waste — and his tenancy of a warehouse that erupted into a inferno in Tottenham in the city’s west last August. The Tottenham site has been called “a danger to life” with a history of safety breaches.

That suspicious blaze, currently subject to a coronial inquiry, was Melbourne’s biggest industrial fire in decades. The burning chemical cocktail triggered heavy nose bleeds for MFB firefighters. Some continue to suffer from health complaints more than six months later. Residents in surrounding suburbs also reported a range of ill effects including nose bleeds, migraines and respiratory problems.

The regulatory regime that failed to stop such a fire erupting barely 10 kilometres from the heart of Melbourne’s CBD is under fresh scrutiny after another fire spewed toxic smoke over the city last Friday, April 5, fuelled by more than 300,000 litres of hazardous chemicals. The anxiety and anger at public meetings in the wake of the fire closely echoed that of residents living in the city’s west after Tottenham.

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Communities are again frustrated at overstretched authorities unable to ensure their safety from licensed operations, let alone reining in the booming industrial waste black-market. Sources familiar with the workings of the waste recycling industry in Victoria claim the under-resourcing of WorkSafe and the Environment Protection Authority has left authorities hopelessly ill-equipped to tackle a problem long exacerbated by rogue operators, in an industry increasingly infiltrated by organised crime.

WorkSafe admitted to being oblivious to the stockpile of chemicals that fuelled the 14,000-square-metre Tottenham fire — almost three-quarters of the MCG in size. Because the site hadn’t been registered for dangerous goods, it simply wasn’t on their radar. The EPA and Maribyrnong Council had inspected the site only three weeks earlier, finding it almost empty, raising questions about how thousands of drums of toxic waste could have been moved into the warehouse so quickly without detection.

As long as there is fast and easy money to be made in the illegal stockpiling or disposing of toxic chemical waste, toothless regulators armed with paltry penalties can do little to tackle the ticking time-bombs triggered by criminal conduct. High costs and dangerous conditions have left open the door to cowboys willing to play with the edges of regulations or ignore them entirely. Setting up companies, leasing premises and stockpiling waste without planning approvals or permits, they have long thumbed their noses at local government and made a mockery of an overstretched and underfunded regulatory regime.

Even if caught, penalties are pitiful. In 2016, Boral Resources was dragged through the courts and fined a paltry $30,000 for illegally accepting and storing 110,000 tonnes of industrial waste with a licence over a seven-year period. One dollar per 3.7 tonnes. The largest fine handed down in 2017/18 was $125,000, against a company that deliberately attempted to pass off about 800 tonnes of industrial waste as clean-fill.

As long as fines fail to challenge the profit margins available for cutting corners, the temptation is too great for rogue operators to resist. The Australian Workers’ Union warns that problems are exacerbated by cowboy operators exploiting foreign workers on working visas. Such workers are too afraid to speak out about underpayment, dangerous working conditions or deadly chemical stockpiles as they fear losing their right to stay in Australia. The conditions and cash flow that attracted the rogues has now caught the attention of organised criminals.

Shuffling millions of litres of toxic waste around the city undetected is no minor feat. It takes resources and connections, blind eyes and silence. Steps have been taken to tackle such issues in places like the UK, but local authorities are clearly playing catch-up. Yet these issues are nothing new. Nobody in a position of authority can claim to be surprised. Joan Kirner, before taking the reins as the state’s premier in 1990, raised concerns in parliament about the furtive goings-on in the industrial badlands of Yarraville.

Keen to avoid the impression it has been caught napping, the Victorian government has asked WorkSafe to review whether tougher penalties are needed to crack down on people illegally storing chemicals. Further promises were made this week in the wake of the Campbellfield fire, including vague assurances of better chemical waste tracking in future and increased penalties under an updated Environment Protection Act. However most of the changes aren’t scheduled to come into effect until after July 2020.

Meanwhile, communities living hard up against heavy industry are asking why they are yet again paying the price for lax regulation and criminal conduct, and wondering how long before somebody pays with their life.