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Managing waste when disaster strikes

Rebecca Tempest of Blue Mountains City Council shares the lessons learned for managing waste following a natural disaster from her own experience of the 2013 bushfires.

When a fire on Earth can be seen from space, it is clear that the impact will be huge.

On 16 and 17 October 2013, devastating bushfires started in the Blue Mountains area. By 20 October, a State of Emergency was declared for the area due to these fires along with others raging in Port Stephens, Balmoral and Wyong. The smoke was clearly visible from the NASA Aqua Satellite.

The Blue Mountains bushfires of October 2013 burnt through more than 69,000 hectares of land. More than 200 homes were destroyed, a further 134 homes damaged, 101 outbuildings lost and 463 properties suffered other losses.

Rebecca Tempest is Program Leader, Waste & Sustainability, for Blue Mountains City Council (BMCC). She had responsibility for managing waste services, which BMCC knew would be deluged as a result of the destruction caused by the bushfires.

In the early days, Rebecca’s team was monitoring the volumes of incoming waste and focusing on providing the necessary services.

“The fires weren’t under control for two weeks, so the emergency services’ main focus was on the fire fighting operation,” Rebecca recalls. “However, it was important to pay attention to the impact of all the incoming bushfire-related waste material on the city’s only landfill, as people were already starting the clean-up process.”

As the disaster unfolded, the NSW Government waived the waste levy, which meant BMCC could allow free disposal of bushfire-affected material.

As a result Rebecca and BMCC faced three key challenges.

The first revolved around the fact that bushfires were still active in some areas while the clean-up and recovery from others had started. It took two weeks before the bushfires were controlled. At the same time, adding to the complexity, the homes of many BMCC employees were also under threat.

“Many of us were monitoring emergency updates to check the situation with our own homes, while at the same time initiating recovery efforts and helping the community deal with the clean-up.”

The second issue was landfill capacity. BMCC’s only landfill at Blaxland and a transfer station at Katoomba were feeling the pinch of bushfire waste.

At the time of the fires, the operating landfill cell had approximately 10 months of life remaining at normal disposal rates. Due to the bushfires, experts estimated the rate of incoming domestic, commercial and demolition waste streams at 45,000 tonnes.

“While the tender and construction of the next stage of the landfill was set to be complete within 10 months, it wasn’t going to be ready in time for the increased demand generated by bushfire waste,” explains Rebecca. As BMCC urgently worked on an appropriate solution, about 1,000 tonnes of material was delivered to the Blaxland Waste Management Facility.

“If uncontrolled tipping had continued, the landfill would have hit capacity by Christmas, leaving the City without a disposal option for any of its waste,” states Rebecca.

With increased demand came increased risk. The extra number of customers using the site meant more pressure on gatehouse operations and lengthy queues to tip waste. BMCC needed to control the number of people using the facility because of the very real bushfire risk to the premises and therefore potential harm to the public.

Finally, another challenge came in the form of incoming waste containing asbestos contaminated material (ACM). Without a coordinated approach, there wouldn’t be any way to clearly identify where asbestos may be present in the waste streams.

To continue reading, see page 38 of the latest edition.