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. 

Related stories:

Cleanaway acquires SKM debt

Cleanaway Waste Management has acquired the senior secured debt in the SKM Recycling Group from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the largest lender to SKM, for approximately $60 million.

According to a Cleanaway statement, the debt is secured against all assets of SKM, with the exception of its Glass Recovery Services business.

“This includes the property, plant and equipment that form part of a network of five recycling sites, including three material recovery facilities and a transfer station in Victoria and a material recovery facility in Tasmania,” the statement reads.

“The site in Laverton Victoria includes an advanced plastic sorting facility, which separates plastics from material recovery facilities into clean, individual polymer grades for sale or input into a pelletising facility.”

Following the debt acquisition, Cleanaway appointed Mark Korda and Bryan Webster of KordaMentha receivers and managers for the entire SKM Recycling group, excluding its Glass Recovery Services entities.

“KordaMentha will immediately implement a three-point plan, with the aim to get the business back to capacity to help ease Victoria’s waste crisis,” the statement reads.

“The rescue and restructure package may include a sale of all or part of the assets. If a sale process is undertaken by the receivers, Cleanaway intends to participate in the process, and will undertake a thorough due diligence review of the business.”

Cleanaway CEO and Managing Director Vik Bansal said the acquisition would allow Cleanaway to work with the receivers to examine viable options for SKM.

“If a sale process is undertaken, and if we are successful in purchasing any assets, we will return the assets to a sustainable footing,” Mr Bansal said.

“It will also present us with an opportunity to add to our network of prized infrastructure assets as part of our Footprint 2025 strategy.”

Related stories:

$10M loan for SKM clean-up

KordaMentha has secured a $10 million loan from the Victorian Government to help clean-up SKM sites and resume waste processing.

KordaMentha were appointed SKM Recycling’s receiver and manager earlier in August, following reports the company owed $100 million to multiple stakeholders.

Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the loan would help clear waste stockpiles and fund the essential maintenance work required to get SKM’s plants back up and running, while meeting strict environmental and safety standards.

“The Laverton site will be the first to return to operation, with stockpile clearing to begin within the week, and some processing expected to start within five weeks,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

“This loan is the fastest way of getting recyclable materials sent to processing sites instead of landfill.”

Ms D’Ambrosio said the state government is also in the process of overhauling kerbside recycling.

“The state government is working in partnership with local government and industry on a major overhaul of kerbside collection, which will seek innovative and cost-effective designs that could include additional household bins to reduce waste contamination,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

“Negotiating new kerbside collection services across councils will send a strong signal to industry, trigger a change to community behaviour and reduce waste and contamination.”

Ms D’Ambrosio said following consultation, an EOI will be released to design the new kerbside collection service, expected to start in 2021.

The announcement comes on top of a $6.6 million financial relief package to councils directly affected by the closure of SKM, which includes a rebate to cover the cost of the landfill levy.

Related stories:

VIC allocates $11M to recycling relief

The Victorian Government will tackle ongoing waste management issues with $11.3 million in immediate financial relief to councils and infrastructure investment.

Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said SKM Recycling were significantly undercutting the prices of other recycling providers, and since they stopped accepting waste, many councils are paying double what they were for recycling services.

“To alleviate this financial pressure, the state government will deliver a $6.6 million package to the 33 affected councils over the next four months, providing a rebate that will cover the additional costs they are incurring to deal with their recyclable waste,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

“The state government also stands ready to work with the receiver of SKM Corporate, and any prospective buyer to remove the stockpiles at SKM-managed sites and offsite storage of material.”

Ms D’Ambrosio said it had become clear that the quality of Australia’s recyclable material is compromised due to its high rate of contamination.

“To that end, the state government will also work with councils and industry stakeholders on a major overhaul of kerbside collection to improve the quality of recyclables being collected by councils,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

Council’s hoping to receive assistance will have to provide evidence that alternatives to landfill are being sought, agree to participate in collaborative procurement and provide information on current contractural rates and conditions.

The government has also announced new grants worth $4.7 million, to support projects that will improve the quality of recycled materials through better sorting and processing.

“At the most recent Council of Australian Governments meeting, the Prime Minister acknowledged that recyclable waste is a national issue, as well as an opportunity to rebuild a domestic recycling sector that can provide products to local markets,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

“To achieve this, targets will also be considered to drive investment in end uses, such as glass for road base and railway sleepers made from plastics.”

Related stories: 

Melbourne fast-tracks waste strategy

The City of Melbourne will fast-track the delivery of its Waste and Resource Recovery Strategy and bring investment in infrastructure forward.

Following SKM’s decision to no longer accept waste material, the city has been forced to send 45 tonnes of recycling to landfill each day.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the city, and its subsidiary Citywide, will run an independent feasibility study into establishing a large-scale recycling centre in Greater Melbourne.

“As a matter of urgency, our waste collection business Citywide will work with independent experts to look at the best way to create a specialised recycling facility in Victoria that will be stable and sustainable,” Ms Capp said.

“The study will consider the potential size and location for a new facility, as well as the number of municipalities it could service. It would also consider the level of recycled material required for it to be viable and potential markets for recycled materials.”

Ms Capp said the city would also investigate new ways to reduce contamination throughout the municipality.

“We want to stop recyclables going to landfill as soon as possible and deliver long-term improvements for our residents and businesses,” Ms Capp said.

“We are going to increase the number of shared waste hubs for businesses in the central city.”

Ms Capp said the city is also examining international best practices and will run an expression of interest period for technology usable in Melbourne’s inner city laneways.

“This could include using everything from mini-compactor bins, specialised vehicles and collection of source separated materials such as glass, organics, paper and cardboard,” Ms Capp said.

“Ultimately we need to work towards the model used by many European countries where recycling streams are collected and processed separately.”

According to Ms Capp, the issue cannot be tackled by individual municipalities.

“The City of Melbourne will be working with other councils, the Victorian Government and the community to achieve long-term change,” Ms Capp said.

City of Melbourne Environment Chair Cathy Oke said local residents and businesses also needed to play their part to reduce contamination in waste streams.

“Rather than send our recycling overseas, we will examine the feasibility and cost of preparing materials for manufacturing use here in Victoria,” Ms Oke said.

“We need to provide a cleaner product for our recycling industry to return to a more sustainable and stable footing.”

Related stories:

EOI’s to open following SKM shut down

Victoria’s Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG) has announced that expression of interest for recycling services will open this month, following the temporary closure of SKM Recycling facilities.

SKM, which has contracts with 33 Victorian councils, announced it would not accept material from 26 July, following EPA regulation and compliance issues.

According to a media statement, MWRRG has been in daily contact with affected councils, state government, the Municipal Association of Victoria and other recycling service providers to assess their capacity to take extra recyclables.

MWRRG is now progressing plans for new collaborative procurements for recycling services, working with 11 council clusters comprising more than 60 councils across the state.

“By councils working together, larger contracts will be offered to the industry to encourage investment in recycling infrastructure and technology, and to attract new candidates to the Victorian recycling sector,” the statement reads.

“Industry will be asked to provide an expression of interest on the collaborative procurements in August, with detailed submissions expected by the end of the year. Contracts are expected to be in place by June 2020.”

Related stories: 

EPA Victoria removes ban

EPA Victoria has withdrawn its official notice banning recycler SKM Services from accepting recyclables at its Laverton North facility.

The facility, which processes large amounts of household recyclables collected by local councils, can now resume accepting waste.

The notice requiring SKM to cease accepting new waste was issued on 10 July, after an EPA inspection found the site failed to meet the requirements of the Victorian Waste Management Policy.

Following an Inspection by EPA this week, the notice was revoked. Inspectors from WorkSafe and the Wyndham City Council were also present to follow up on remedial action.

According to an EPA media statement, SKM’s recycling facilities can expect regular monitoring to continue and EPA will not hesitate to take further remedial action.

EPA Victoria orders recycler to stop accepting material

The Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG) is initiating a range of measures to support councils, following a EPA Victoria notice that SKM Services stop accepting recyclable material at its Laverton North site.

EPA issued the recycler with notices on 19 June that required it bring outdoor stockpiles at Maffra Street, Coolaroo and Laverton North into compliance with the Victorian Waste Management Policy by 3 July 2019.

An EPA media statement said regulatory action followed an inspection that revealed waste on site had increased following an extension of time for compliance.

Additionally, a fire broke out at the Laverton North site 9 July that EPA believes began on a conveyor belt.

“EPA is of the opinion that SKM understood its obligations under the notices, but had not demonstrated a move towards achieving compliance at the Laverton North site,” the statement reads.

“The company will still be able to process waste at its Laverton North site while the notice is in place, but will not be able to receive any new materials until EPA is satisfied that it has achieved compliance with the Victorian Waste Management Policy.”

MWRRG is seeking confirmation from SKM that it has alternative provisions in place to ensure it can continue to provide service to up to 10 affected local councils.

MWRRG CEO Rob Millard said MWRRG’s focus is on ensuring minimal disruption to residents by working with affected councils, other recycling facilities and landfill operators on immediate and long-term solutions.

“Following China’s decision to limit the importation of recyclables, MWRRG has been developing collaborative procurements for recycling services, working with 11 council clusters comprising more than 60 councils across the state,” Mr Millard said.

“By councils working together, larger contracts will be offered in the industry to encourage investment in recycling infrastructure and technology, and to attract new candidates to the Victorian recycling sector.”

Mr Millard said industry would be asked to provide expressions of interest on the collaborative procurements in August, with detailed submissions expected by the end of the year.

Related stories:

Victorian parliamentary inquiry into ‘waste crisis’

The Environment and Planning Committee will inquire into the “crisis” affecting Victoria’s recycling and waste management system following a parliamentary inquiry push from the Greens.

The inquiry was endorsed by the Victorian Parliament’s upper house on Wednesday.

Victorian councils were forced to send recyclables to landfill after the Environment Protection Authority banned a major Melbourne recycler from accepting waste at its Coolaroo and Laverton North plants in February.

Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio told parliament a third of the councils affected by the ban had found alternative processors and the government was working to help the others.

When operational, the Melbourne recycler receives approximately 50 per cent of Victoria’s kerbside recycling across three facilities.

Victorian Greens deputy leader Ellen Sandell said the inquiry would help develop short-term measures to support councils and limit the amount of recycling ending up in landfill.

The Victorian Greens party is of the view that Victoria has been in the midst of a waste crisis since at least February 2018 and has been calling for solutions to improve market development.

Ms Sandell said she hopes the inquiry will provide direction to develop a state-based recycling industry, highlighting Greens proposals to develop a container deposit scheme and ban on single-use plastics.

“Victorians are doing the right thing and recycling at home, but right now there are no assurances of where it ends up.

“Government support for a state based recycling industry is long overdue and it’s not good enough for Labor to continually push responsibility back onto councils,” she said.

The Environment and Planning Committee plans to report by 13 August.

Related stories: