Tellus Holding’s first mover advantage

Tellus Holdings Managing Director Duncan van der Merwe tells Waste Management Review about the company’s plans for Australia’s first commercial geological hazardous waste repository.

Gaining a first-mover advantage on a novel Australian commercial waste facility is no easy task.

Entering an untapped market often means exploring new environmental and compliance controls. That’s not to mention investigating project feasibility, finding a suitable location and identifying critical infrastructure, all while garnering industry and community support.

Such was the case for infrastructure project development company Tellus Holdings Ltd, which has set its sights on building Australia’s first dual open-cut kaolin mine and arid near-surface geological waste repository. Notably, the repository will be used to store, recycle, recover and permanently isolate hazardous waste. As the first commercially owned and operated facility of its kind in the country, the geological waste repository forms a significant milestone in Australia’s hazardous waste management.

The key difference between a landfill and a geological repository is the fact that landfills rely on man-made engineered barriers, which fail over time. Geological repositories conversely rely on multiple fail-safe mechanisms underpinned by man-made barriers (active controls) and natural barriers (passive controls). This includes geographic, geological, climatic and seismic factors, that, combined, are superior to any man-made barrier. Geological barriers also ensure isolation of wastes from the environment over hundreds of thousands to millions of years – an occurrence not possible with man-made engineered barriers.

Duncan van der Merwe, Tellus Holdings Managing Director, says he first became familiar with the concept of a geological repository in 1999 after running an investment banking team specialising in public-private finance initiatives with six waste management projects on the books.

Around that time, the UK had sought to ban hazardous waste to landfill, and Duncan also noticed Australian governments were beginning to ban a number of hazardous wastes to landfill. At that point, Duncan asked himself a simple question: where are Australia’s geological repositories?

“I was quite surprised we did not have this tool in the tool box and then had a light bulb moment,” Duncan explains.

The research led Duncan to conduct a fact-finding tour in 2009 of international repositories in the UK, US and Canada before establishing Tellus Holdings in NSW, under its former name – Underground Storage Solutions.

THE NATION’S BIG WASTE PROBLEM

The investigations came as the nation grappled with a growing hazardous problem. According to federal government data, hazardous waste is rising faster than population growth at nine per cent per annum between 2010-11 and 2014-15, with much of this driven by a rise in demand for coal seam gas.

Blue Environment’s Australian hazardous waste data and reporting standard, 2017 revision, defines hazardous waste as that which cannot be imported or exported from Australia without a permit under the Hazardous Waste Act. The definition also encompasses that which requires high levels of management and controls and additional wastes nominated as hazardous by the federal government.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia has one of the highest rates of waste generation per capita in the world and this includes hazardous waste. Duncan estimates that more than 5.3 million tonnes of hazardous waste each year enters Australia’s infrastructure network and over 40 million tonnes each year remains onsite and does not enter the network, highlighting that the facilities simply aren’t there to deal with it. This has resulted in a legacy stockpile that has crossed the billion-tonne line and is still growing.

“Europe and predominately countries like Germany have been using geological repositories since the 70s and, more recently, the UK, North America and South America and Africa have too,” Duncan explains.

“The Western Australian Government has owned for the last 26 years a geological repository called Mt Walton East Intractable Waste Disposal facility, but it opens infrequently and on a campaign basis and at a less competitive price point. This has successfully demonstrated the multi-barrier safety case.”

A FACT-FINDING MISSION

With a mission to contribute towards a cleaner Australia through a portfolio of geological repositories, Tellus Holdings from 2010 to 2013 began investigating the best natural barrier to establish a world’s best practice geological repository. After years of thorough investigation, it found a suitable site in Sandy Ridge, 240 kilometres from Kalgoorlie, WA, in a 70-million-year-old clay bed.

Its investigations found there would be no plausible scenarios where the clay bed would leach and cause pollution. This is due to the fact that the clay allows for absorption and adsorption, absorbing any liquids while also adhering to the surface. The arid near surface geological repository also benefits from a quality kaolin mineral resource, lack of surface water and regional groundwater, high evaporation rates, low erosion rates, no rare, threatened or endangered species and animals, no recorded items of cultural heritage and no local population.

ACCEPTING HAZARDOUS WASTES

Duncan and his team decided that Sandy Ridge would be the ideal site to accept contaminated soils from site remediation projects, as well as asbestos from housing projects, PFAS (including fire-fighting foams and associated contaminated materials), acids and alkaline wastes from industry, arsenic and cyanide from the gold industry, hydrocarbon wastes from the oil and gas industry and wastes generated by man-made or natural disasters.

It also determined that other waste types would be collected from the agriculture, manufacturing and utilities sectors, as well as household wastes collected by waste management companies. Its patented technology means it can accept liquids and solidify them.

In response to customer demand, Tellus Holdings decided it would also accept low-level radioactive wastes such as medical isotopes, disused sealed radioactive sources from measuring equipment and smoke alarms. That’s in addition to naturally occurring radioactive material as a result of processing from the mineral sands, water desalination and oil and gas industries. The company will not accept intermediate and high-level wastes or nuclear wastes and is not a nominated site under the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility site selection process. Nevertheless, it can handle most wastes under the NEPM 75 categories and is also supportive of the circular economy and plans to on-sell the recoverable wastes to recyclers.

GOVERNMENT APPROVAL

Setting up the Australia-first facility required a rigorous environmental impact assessment by the WA Government, with draft statements out for public consultation. The Sandy Ridge project released a draft Public Environmental Review out for public comment in early 2016. After undergoing detailed feasibility studies, it received conditional approval from the WA Government’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA WA) at the end of 2017 and ministerial approval at the end of June 2018.

The Sandy Ridge approval allows for the mining of 290,000 tonnes of kaolin clay and the receipt of up to 100,000 tonnes of Class IV and V waste each year. The clay will be mined and exported with the residual space used for waste placement.

Part of the assessment criteria included that Tellus Holdings would conduct an annual independent audit of accepted wastes on site, along with detailed record keeping and a leachate monitoring and management plan.

“Due to our multi-barrier safety case, we are the only company that can permanently isolate difficult to manage waste,” Duncan says.

“Therefore, we are the only company that can issue a much sought-after Permanent Isolation Certificate – called  a PIC. The trademarked PIC is very much in demand and the PIC certifies critical facts that may provide a basis for derecognising a liability provision on the financial statements under Australian accounting standard (AASB 137) and international financial reporting standards (IAS 37).”

Duncan says this removal of contingent liability is critical for businesses demonstrating accountability to directors, insurers, government, community and shareholders, not to mention alleviating any occupational health and safety and environmental concerns.

He says the combination of these factors and a cost-competitive pricing point makes it a compelling business proposition.

Over the years, a second deep salt geological repository (trademarked SaltVault) is also being developed 120 kilometres south of Alice Springs, NT. The Chandler Facility Project will involve the construction and operation of an underground salt mine in a 250-300-metre-thick, 500 million-year-old salt bed. In addition to salt mining mostly for exports, the business plans to store equipment and archives (underground warehouse business), as well as the long-term storage, recycle and recovery and permanent isolation of difficult to manage chemical wastes not accepted at landfills. The NT EPA recommended approval following its environmental impact assessment at the end of 2017.

The ambitious plans are all part of Tellus Holdings’ wider goal of introducing geological repositories across Australia, supported by a logistical network of hubs and spokes offering door-to-door service and a circular economy business model. Tellus Holdings has already partnered with Toll Group to leverage its extensive network of warehouses and air, sea, rail and road logistics solutions. It is also forming networks with waste producers and managers, which continues to grow via its national business development team led by General Manager, Richard McAree.

Construction of the company’s Sandy Ridge facility (ClayVault) is expected at the end of 2018, with the Chandler facility (SaltVault) to be built about two years later, once the first facility has established itself. “We see our business model as becoming an enabling business for many of the existing waste management companies,” Duncan says.

“When a facility like ours opens, the hazardous waste begins to move and when it moves, the industry has an uptake across the value chain and we become a very important tool in the tool box.”