Extinguishing risk: EPA Victoria

Waste Management Review explores the Victorian EPA’s amended policy for combustible recyclable and waste materials and a training partnership to support it.

A recent spate of waste fires has highlighted the questionable storage and management practices of some Victorian resource recovery facilities.

While the issue spurred proactive responses from government and the private sector, significant media attention has resulted in public scrutiny.

Figures from Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning reveal more than 100 recycling facility fires occurred in Victoria over the last 10 years, with the largest costing the Victorian Government over $110 million.

In 2017, a Coolaroo facility fire burned for 20 days before it was extinguished, causing significant human health and environmental problems. This resulted in community evacuations, with facility staff and the public also requiring medical treatment.

Following the fire, the Victorian Government established a Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce. The group was tasked with inspecting resource recovery facilities across the state to tackle stockpiles that might pose a fire risk. Since July 2017, the taskforce has conducted 628 inspections at 169 sites, issuing 186 notices and 35 sanctions.

The extremity of the Coolaroo fire reaffirmed the importance of proper material storage and prompted the Victorian Government to revise its Waste Management Policy for Combustible Recyclable and Waste Materials in 2018.

Organisations such as SKM Services have been issued with notices in line with the policy in mid-2019 to stop accepting combustible waste until compliance was achieved.

Danny Childs, EPA Resource Recovery Audit Taskforce Manager, says the waste and recycling industry is going through a period of momentous change.

“EPA’s message is clear: community and environment first. Compliance and enforcement efforts against waste crime and illegal industrial and chemical waste stockpiling will continue to be a major priority,” Danny says.

“In parallel, EPA has ramped up its work with industry to increase compliance understanding and risks that must be managed.”

Waste Management Review explores the amended Waste Management Policy and a training partnership with the Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA).

At the VWMA 2019 State Conference, Miranda Tolmer, EPA Victoria Industry Guidance Unit Manager, discussed the combustible waste policy, its supplementary guideline report and steps towards compliance.

The EPA Waste Management Policy for Combustible Recyclable and Waste Materials was designed to enforce stringent safety standards in an attempt to address the rogue operators adversely affecting the sector’s reputation. Additionally, as with all EPA policies, it is based on the authority’s broader duty to protect human health and the environment.

Noncompliance can result in sanctions under the Environment Protection Act 1970.

Following the policy amendment, the EPA released a complementary set of compliance guidelines in October 2018.

Miranda said the guidelines, developed in consultation with the Country Fire Authority and Metropolitan Fire Brigade, aim to support compliance and educate operators on their legal responsibilities.

The guidelines stress the significance of understanding fire hazards associated with waste storage and management activities, while also outlining steps to reduce risk.

During her presentation, Miranda named five key risk assessment concepts including previous occurrence, frequency, changes in operational conditions, changes in environmental conditions and behaviour.

Accompanying each concept are guiding questions operators can ask themselves in order to assess their facilities risk potential.   

Besides previous occurrence for example, the guideline report asks – has a fire occurred in your industry, and if so, what were the consequences?

“Assessing incidents or near misses provides an understanding of the context in which the incident occurs,” the report reads.

According to the guideline report, assessing this question provides a good indication of how to prevent the issue in the future.

“It is also important to not just consider your site, but think about all occurrences across industry,” the report reads.

The guideline lists a number of operator responsibilities to achieve compliance including ensuring new buildings and refurbishments meets requirements of local planning and building authorities, signing off on essential safety measures and actively involving employees in site safety.

Site managers must also respond to all fire prevention notices and comply with relevant Victorian occupational health and safety legislation. The policy applies to all waste and resource recovery facilities regardless of size, with only licensed waste tyre storage premises and licensed landfills excluded.

Additionally, the policy states that operators are responsible for minimising harm caused by fires irrespective of how they start. If a fire starts on nearby bushland and travels to a facility for example, operators are still liable for managing resulting harm potential.

EPA guidelines suggest operators develop a risk register, where they can document a hazard and potential causes, before examining the likelihood and consequences for the business itself and wider community.

“Identifying hazards and assessing risk is an ongoing exercise. Risk assessment involves developing an appreciation of the scale of potential consequences, and the relative likelihood of those consequences should an event occur,” the report reads.

“Understanding the consequence and likelihood of a hazard can support and inform the selection, development and application of controls.”

Miranda highlighted the hierarchy of controls as a useful prioritisation framework for the identification and selection of control measures.

The hierarchy prioritises eliminating the hazard, followed by substituting the hazard and engineering controls. If those mechanisms aren’t effective, the hierarchy outlines administering controls through training and protective equipment.

Miranda said risk analysis must also be accompanied by an assessment of the practicality and feasibility of each control option. She added that the primary consideration for applying controls should always be the practicality of implementation.

“Risk controls should be adopted in line with a cautious approach that considers the site’s capacity, inventory, location and proximity to sensitive land uses,” Miranda said.

Specific risk prevention measures include activity separation, such as separating drop off, processing and storage areas to prevent contamination and hot loads entering combustible spaces.

Furthermore, early detection devices such as thermal probes to monitor storage temperature, video smoke detection and flame detection, regular inspections, routine equipment servicing and adequate waste supply are encouraged.

“Whether additional actions are required depends on existing fire risk management at each site, but could include improved work procedures, maintenance and training to minimise ignition, changing the volumes and way waste material is stored and improving firefighting capabilities,” Miranda said.

WORKSHOPPING THE ISSUE

To educate industry on the amended policy, the EPA held five Combustible Recyclable and Waste Materials Guideline implementation workshops in the first half of 2019. The workshops involved discussions with recycling and landfill operators on steps to take to reduce the risk of fire.

Sessions took participants through a virtual facility tour, identifying various risks and controls that needed to be identified, and remedial actions operators could take.

Members of the Country Fire Authority also provided advice on fire management and emergency preparedness.

Matt Peake, EPA Executive Officer Resource Recovery Gippsland, says the Gippsland workshop was a great opportunity for the growing region. Gippsland’s population is projected to increase by 25 per cent by 2030, bringing higher levels of waste generation with it.

“Our [Waste and Resource Recovery] implementation plan has identified that to meet the needs of our community, we need to assist industry and local government to continuously improve the performance of waste and resource recovery infrastructure and services in the region,” Matt says.

“Understanding how to comply with new regulation is critical in ensuring community expectations are being meet, and that these essential services are reliable.”

During her conference presentation, Miranda said the amended waste policy is less prescriptive than the original.

She added that the new policy has a greater focus on working with industry to provide flexible options and individualised solutions.

That said, VWMA Executive Officer Mark Smith says the guidelines are somewhat ambiguous, with differing expectations and interpretations resulting in non-compliance. He adds that operators are often unaware of their level of compliance.

Mark says this uncertainty can lead to situations where well-intentioned operators are punished, when the focus should be on those operators that intentionally circumnavigate the system.

Since then, the EPA has partnered with VWMA to develop a training program to assist guideline implementation and alleviate industry confusion.

Mark says the program is modelled off the guidelines, with a focus on tangible action rather than broad concepts.

“VWMA wants to ensure industry understands the guidelines so we can all work together to mitigate fire risk,” Mark says.

“It’s all about transferring awareness into action to support a thriving industry sector.”

Mark says the program is designed to support policy compliance, while also holding organisations like the EPA to account in the delivery of prescribed outcomes.

“We need the policy to work with and around industry so we can achieve the best environmental outcomes without compromising individual business needs,” Mark says.

The risk-based training program will help participants identify, quantity and develop plans and processes to manage risk.

Mark says to achieve this, operators must both understand inherent risks and document them.

“The whole process needs to be transparent and open, government and the private sector must come together to address this problem,” Mark says.

“VWMA and the EPA recognise the need to promote better practice through a shared commitment to drive industry leadership in the preventative management of combustible recyclable and waste material.”

Mark says participating in the training program will demonstrate a waste and resource recovery operator’s willingness and commitment to identify and manage risk.

“We aim to support members and the waste and resource recovery sector to reduce the frequency, scale and severity of fires at waste and resource recovery facilities,” he says.

Mark says the program is being developed through stakeholder consultation and is expected to commence in September.

Looking forward, Danny says the EPA’s regulatory powers will be strengthened from 1 July 2020, following implementation of the new Environment Protection Act.

The reform represents the most significant change to Victoria’s environmental regulatory regime since the introduction of the Environment Protection Act 1970.

The new legislation is focused on preventing risks, rather than managing harm after it has occurred, and is modelled on occupational health and safety legislation.

Danny says the changes will modernise the EPA’s inspection and inquiry powers and introduce strong regulatory duties across the whole waste supply chain, from generators and transporters to receivers of waste.

Changes include significant increases in maximum fines and penalties, such as potential jail time for repeat illegal dumping offences and stronger fit and proper person requirements.

Danny says strengthened proper person requirements mean undesirable operators can be prevented from holding a permission and/or be excluded from undertaking specified activities.   

“Preventing environmental harm is at the core of this act and in an Australian first, the act will introduce a general preventative environmental duty that is criminally enforceable,” Danny says.

One of the most significant changes to the act is the general environmental duty.

“The general duty will require people conducting activities that pose risks to human health and the environment to fully understand risks and take reasonable steps to eliminate or minimise them,” Danny says.

This article was published in the September edition of Waste Management Review. 

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VWMA partners with EPA for waste and recycling training

The Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA) is partnering with Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) to develop a training package that seeks to equip operators with information and tools to better manage fire risks.

The training course will be delivered by VWMA as part of its industry training program to be modelled on the Management and storage of combustible recyclable and waste materials – guideline.

The training will equip operators with information and tools to understand the fire hazards associated with their activities and take steps to reduce risk. It will include the management and storage of combustible recyclable and waste materials in a manner that protects the environment and human health from the risk of fire.

EPA sees the partnership with VWMA as an important way of ensuring ongoing implementation of the management and storage of combustible recyclable and waste materials – guideline and will be seeking to evaluate the effectiveness of this approach.

VWMA Executive Officer Mark Smith highlighted that last year’s VWMA State Conference saw a commitment from the association to work with insurance sector and legal firms, consultants and government to tackle rising insurance costs and the risk of fire at sites.

“This announcement today lays the foundation for us to move forward. Members can expect further information about additional services we will be rolling out at our state conference on 30/31 July,” Mr Smith said.

“Figures from DELWP reveal more than 100 recycling facility fires have happened in the last 10 years, with the largest costing Victorian Government over $110 million. We want to reduce instances of fires and work with insurance companies to show that the sector is making inroads to lift standards.

“Participating in this training will demonstrate a waste and resource recovery operator’s willingness and commitment to identify and manage risk.  It will also support business lower their risk profiles, which will increasingly be expected if the sector wants to remain insurable.”

EPA CEO Cathy Wilkinson said that through extensive engagement with industry and local government, EPA has developed practical guidelines on how to comply with the Victorian Government’s Waste Management Policy (Combustible Recyclable and Waste Materials).

The VWMA and EPA recognise the need to promote better practice through a shared commitment to drive industry leadership in the preventative management of combustible recyclable and waste materials. The VWMA aims to support its members and the waste and resource recovery sector to reduce the frequency, scale and severity of fires at waste and resource recovery facilities.

In a statement, the VWMA noted that the Victorian waste and resource recovery sector provides over 23,000 direct and indirect jobs across over 1200 businesses and is an essential community service supporting all the waste management needs of every Victorian business and household.

Currently, the sector is responding to changes in the regulatory environment around fire risk and management following new government policy introduced after several major fires.

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Laverton North site regains compliance

An inspection of a major Melbourne recycling company by EPA Victoria officers in March has determined the company has met the conditions of the notice served on them and is now able to resume accepting recyclable waste materials at its Laverton North site.

The Coolaroo site remains non-compliant and will not be able to accept recycling waste until compliance has been confirmed by the EPA.

On 15 February 2019 EPA alleged the company was not in compliance with the Victorian Waste Management Policy(Combustible Recyclable and Waste Materials) and issued them with a remedial notice which required them to cease accepting recyclable waste materials at their Laverton North and Coolaroo sites.

EPA CEO Dr Cathy Wilkinson said that in the event of a fire at either site, large amounts of plastic materials could likely generate significant community impacts from smoke and that the recycling industry had had ample time to become compliant with the policy.

The Melbourne company requested the inspection following improvements at their Laverton North site’s outdoor storage which has seen a reduction in stockpiled waste and increased separation distances as required by the policy.

“The closure of the sites was a decision taken to protect the community from the risk of a major fire. EPA will not allow a repeat of the 2017 Coolaroo fire,” Dr Wilkinson said.

“The company has demonstrated that it has met the conditions outlined in our notices and is again compliant. However, EPA will continue to inspect the Laverton site to ensure it remains compliant with the outdoor storage requirements.

“The community expectation is that the company will now maintain compliance and be able to provide a valuable service to Victorians. The message should be clear, EPA is vigilant. Safety and security cannot allowed to be compromised.”

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Recycling company issued notice to stop accepting materials

A major recycling company in Melbourne has been issued with notices from EPA Victoria requiring it to stop accepting recyclable waste materials at sites in Maffra Street, Coolaroo and Gilbertson Road, Laverton North sites after allegedly failing to meet meet the requirements of the Victorian Waste Management Policy.

The notices raise significant questions about the emergency planning provisions in place to deal with such events, with the Victorian Waste Management Association concerned about the standards in place.

EPA officers recently inspected both sites and saw large stockpiles of combustible recyclable waste materials from kerbside collections stored without appropriate separation distances between stockpiles, buildings or the premises boundary.

EPA CEO Dr Wilkinson said the waste stockpiles could pose a significant risk and challenge for firefighting agencies if ignited.

“Fire water run off could also enter waterways and have long-lasting impacts on the environment due to the toxic contaminants,” Dr Wilkinson said.

She said that EPA has determined that these stockpiles are in breach of the Waste Management Policy that has been in place since August 2017 following a major fire at the site.

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She said that EPA also determined that the company had not taken reasonable steps to manage and store combustible recyclable waste materials at these facilities in a manner that minimises the risks of harm to human health and the environment from fire.

Dr Wilkinson said that given the Waste Management Policy has been in place for almost 18 months, the company, and the recycling industry as a whole, has had ample time to meet the requirements of the policy to ensure the safety of local communities.

The Victorian Waste Management Association in a statement said it supports EPA action against high-risk, non-compliant operators, but further government action is needed and ongoing conversation with industry are essential.

“Recent announcements and action by the EPA on the level of risk and potential consequences of stockpiled post-consumer recyclables at the company is welcomed by the VWMA, which has been raising member concern on these issues for several months,” the statement read.

“The EPA has a clear role in the management of sites stockpiling combustible materials and have demonstrated this with the notices issued to the company.”

The VWMA said that what is of concern but has not yet been addressed, is the contingency plan should the sector, and ultimately Victoria, not see the issues resolved promptly.

“In the short term it is likely that we will see recyclables ending up in landfill and affected parties seeking alternative facilities to accept materials. Existing contracts may provide provisions for temporary arrangements,” the VWMA said.

“The sector also needs confidence that other key facilities do not price-gouge or exploit the situation.”

In the medium to long term, the VWMA is seeking answers to questions about the following:

  •  why stockpiling is continuing across Victoria when there are mechanisms in place via government, such as behaviour change programs, and procurement standards that could see market drivers introduced to manage our growing post-consumer stockpiles.
  • the role of the Victorian government in the continued provision of collection services to households and business during unavoidable interruptions to the processing of our waste.
  • what systems and processes are in place to ensure the current scenario is not exploited by facilities still accepting recyclables for storage or processing.

VWMA Executive Officer Mark Smith said that stockpiling is a legitimate activity as part of the collection and processing of our waste and the bulk of businesses do this compliantly.

“The VWMA supports strong action by the EPA for continued non-compliance that threatens public and environmental health and undermines the waste and resource recovery system,” he said.

“More than 18 months on from the ramifications of the August 2017 fire, we find ourselves in a familiar setting and questions should be answered about what action is happening to stimulate markets to reduce stockpiling across Victoria.”

The VWMA will be keeping its members updated on the activities related to the cease order over the coming days.

Recycling facility operators that store combustible recyclable waste materials are required to manage materials in a manner that minimises risks of harm to human health and the environment from fire.

Issues with stockpiles at the company’s sites identified by EPA officers include: size of stockpiles, configuration of stockpiles, lack of access, separation distances of stockpiles from boundaries, buildings and other stockpiles and potential sources of ignition.

The issuing of the notices requires the company to stop accepting further material until such time as EPA has confirmed that the sites have been returned to compliance.

EPA will formally launch an investigation into the company in relation to these matters which may lead to penalties under the Environment Protection Act 1970.

EPA is nearing the completion of its investigation into the 2017 Coolaroo fire and is likely to have more comment on this in the coming weeks.

Following a major fire at a recycling plant in July 2017, the Victorian Government established the Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce, which is headed up by EPA, to inspect recycling facilities across the state and tackle stockpiles that pose a fire risk that can cause harm to human health and environment.

Since the taskforce was set up, there have been 47 inspections of the Coolaroo site to ensure recycling operations comply with the Waste Management Policy. Fourteen inspections have occurred at the Laverton site.

These inspections have resulted in EPA issuing the Coolaroo site with 12 notices. Some of these notices related to clean up of the site following the 2017 fire. Further notices relating to stormwater issues and stockpile configuration have also been issued.

There have also been eight notices issued to the Laverton site. These relate to stockpile issues, stormwater issues and a requirement for a fire risk assessment to be undertaken.

EPA holds duty holders to account in the recycling sector. Since its inception, the Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce has conducted 466 inspections at 155 sites across Victoria that have resulted in 144 remedial notices and 23 sanctions issued. Where remedial notices or actions are required, follow up inspections will be carried out to ensure compliance.

Pictured: Stock image.

Australian Paper and SUEZ partner on WtE project

Australian Paper has partnered with SUEZ to develop the $600 million Maryvale Mill waste to energy (WtE) project following the successful completion of its feasibility study.

The $7.5 million study was co-funded with the Federal and Victorian Governments.

Australian Paper will now partner with SUEZ  to secure the long-term access to waste required to power the facility.

Australian Paper’s study examined the technical, social, environmental, and commercial feasibility of establishing an WtE facility at Maryvale.

The 18 month study found the facility would operate at a high efficiency of 58 per cent due to the mill’s need for baseload steam and electricity all year round. It would also divert approximately 650,000 tonnes of residual waste from Melbourne and Gippsland landfill, saving 543,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per annum. The new facility would allow the return of up to four Petajoules of natural gas per annum and 30 megawatt-hour per hour of electricity to Victoria’s retail energy market.

Australian Paper Chief Operating Officer Peter Williams said the company is committed to its mission of sustainable growth for the next generation.

“As the largest industrial user of natural gas in Victoria and a significant energy consumer, we must develop alternative baseload energy sources to maintain our future competitiveness,” Mr Williams said.

“Creating energy from waste is a perfect fit with our operations, because in addition to electricity we require significant quantities of thermal energy to generate steam. A WtE facility at Maryvale would secure ongoing investment at the site, support employment growth in the Latrobe Valley and also provide the missing link in Victoria’s waste management infrastructure,” Mr Williams said.

A recent economic impact study from Western Research Institute has confirmed that the WtE facility would support an average of 1046 Victorian jobs per annum during the three year construction period and more than 900 when operational.

Australian Paper and SUEZ will seek to finalise waste supply arrangements for the project by 2020. Construction of the WtE facility is planned to begin soon after with completion expected in 2024.

Environment Protection Authority Victoria granted Australian Paper a works approval to develop a large-scale, WtE facility in Victoria at the end of 2018. The facility is proposed to be co-located within the boundaries of the Australian Paper site in Maryvale, Latrobe Valley and process residual municipal solid waste, and industrial and commercial waste.

Fire risk of Geelong recycling stockpiles a warning: EPA Victoria

Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) says a $8060 fine issued over non-compliant stockpiling of recyclable waste north-west of Geelong should serve as warning for waste management companies across the state.

EPA South West Manager Carolyn Francis said the loose stockpiles of combustible timber waste could pose a significant challenge for fire services if they were to catch fire.

“If those stockpiles ignited, firefighters could face major challenges protecting the health and environmental safety of the surrounding area,” Ms Francis said.

EPA issued the site operator with a fine for not complying with a legally binding remedial notice to manage the stockpiles in line with EPA Waste Management Policy requirements.

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The unsafe stockpiles were detected through the Victorian Government’s Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce, which has been auditing recycling facilities to identify non-compliance, including the stockpiling of materials that pose a fire risk to community safety and the environment.

Despite EPA issuing the operator with a remedial notice in October 2018, a follow-up inspection in December revealed that the operator had not completed the works required to improve stockpile sizes and management.

The operator has since started work to meet materials recycling guidelines at the premises, with EPA continuing to closely monitor its progress. A further two remedial notices are due for compliance shortly.

“The EPA Guidelines on the management and storage of combustible recyclable and waste materials were established to reduce the risk of fire, and the impacts of smoke and fire water run-off.  They cover issues including separation distances, firefighting facilities, staff training, emergency management planning and preventative behaviours including regular inspections and hazard identification,” Ms Francis said.

Ms Francis said EPA takes a zero-tolerance approach to non-compliance against the Waste Management Policy requirements and expects the recycling industry to take their compliance obligations seriously.

“EPA is continuing inspections of these premises to ensure compliance and reduce the risk that a fire could cause to the community and the environment,” Ms Francis said.

Under the Environment Protection Act 1970 and the Infringements Act 2008, the company has the right to have the decision to issue the infringement notice reviewed or alternatively to have the matter heard and determined by a court.

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