The Federal Government is delivering improvements to the way environmental risks from chemicals are managed in Australia, with the passing of the Industrial Chemicals Environmental Management (Register) Bill 2020 in Parliament last week.
The Victorian Government has announced it will undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s dangerous goods laws in a bid to stamp out unsafe chemical stockpiling.
According to Workplace Safety Minister Jill Hennessy, Andrew Palmer, QC, has been appointed to conduct the review of the Dangerous Goods Act 1985 and associated regulations.
“The review is the latest step in the government’s ongoing response to chemical stockpiling after two large chemical fires in West Footscray in August 2018 and Campbellfield in April 2019,” she said.
“We know that the unsafe storing, handling or disposal of dangerous chemicals poses a real threat to local communities. This review will make sure dangerous goods laws remain effective and keep Victorian’s safe.”
Immediately following the 2018 fire, Ms. Hennessy said WorkSafe led a “blitz” on industrial premises to ensure dangerous chemicals were being stored correctly.
“Government agency investigations led to the discovery of waste chemicals stockpiled at 13 sites in Melbourne’s north last year,” she said.
“A WorkSafe-led taskforce has so far removed more than 13 million litres of the stockpiled waste chemicals, clearing four sites in Epping, three in Craigieburn and three in Campbellfield. The final three sites in Campbellfield are currently being cleared.”
The state government last year introduced new penalties of up to 10 years in jail and fines of more than $6.4 million for rogue operators who manufacture, store, transport, transfer, sell or use dangerous goods in a way that places another person in danger of death.
Penalties were also increased for failing to comply with the direction of a WorkSafe Inspector, and other duties under the Dangerous Goods Act 1985.
“A review of the Act is important to ensure our laws are up to the task of protecting the community from the unacceptable risk that stockpiling of dangerous goods poses, and to deal with those who do it,” Ms Hennessy said.
A final report and recommendations are expected to be delivered to the government next year, with opportunities for public comment and stakeholder engagement later this year.
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Rogue operators who stockpile dangerous chemicals could face up to 10 years in jail, as part of Victoria’s new Dangerous Goods Amendment (Penalty Reform) Bill.
The Victorian Government announced it would crack down on operators who disregard dangerous good laws, following the discovery of millions of litres of waste chemicals stockpiled in northern suburbs warehouses earlier this year.
In a 27 August tweet, Premier Daniel Andrews said operators putting lives and health at risk would face jail time and fines in the millions.
“This is a message for any chemical cowboys out there who think they can treat our state as a dumping ground,” Mr Andrews said.
“We said we’d change the law – and today in Parliament, we’re doing just that.”
Workplace Safety Minister Jill Hennessy said a new offence will be created for those that engage in the manufacture, storage, transport, transfer, sale or use dangerous goods in a way that places, or may place, another person in danger of death.
“Body corporates who are found guilty of this offence could face fines of more than $6.4 million,” Ms Hennessy said.
“Existing maximum penalties for endangering health and safety, property or the environment will be increased from four to five years imprisonment and from $165,000 to $297,000 in fines for individuals.”
Penalties will also be increased for failing to comply with the direction of a WorkSafe Inspector, and other duties under the Dangerous Goods Act.
WorkSafe is currently leading a government agency taskforce to remove waste chemicals from 13 sites in Epping, Campbellfield and Craigieburn.
“The clearing of these sites is well underway with approximately 6.5 million litres of waste chemicals having been removed thus far,” Ms Hennessy said.
The ACCC has proposed to allow product stewardship organisation AgStewardship to increase its levy on the sale of agricultural and veterinary (agvet) chemicals by participating manufacturers.
Funds raised from the levy are used in the drumMUSTER and ChemClear programs to collect and recycle agvet chemical containers and safely dispose of agvet chemicals.
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AgStewardship intends to increase the levy from four cents per litre of kilogram to six cents, to keep pace with increased expenses and to fund improvements to its programs.
This is the first increase in the levy since it began in 1998 and the ACCC is proposing to reauthorise the collection of the levy at the higher level for a further five years.
Over the lifespan of the programs, drumMUSTER has diverted more than 32 million containers from landfill and ChemClear has resulted in more than 661,000 litres of agvet chemicals being collected for safe disposal and recycling.
ACCC Commissioner Roger Featherston said the programs mean collection and recycling services are provided at no further cost to purchasers of agriculture and veterinary chemicals included in the scheme.
“As a result, many more containers and chemicals are returned and safely disposed of, which reduces the negative environmental, health and safety consequences of improper disposal, leading to better outcomes for farms and the environment,” Mr Featherston said.
Currently 116 manufacturers of agvet chemicals participate in the scheme, which AgStewardship estimates covers more than 90 per cent of Australian agvet chemical manufacturers.
“This is an impressive level of coverage, but if more manufacturers can be encouraged to participate in the scheme, then it should achieve even greater environmental and other public benefits,” Mr Featherston said.
A new research hub is focused on transforming organic waste into marketable chemicals that can be used for a variety of uses, from medicinal gels to food packaging.
Monash University has launched the Australian Research Council (ARC) Hub for Processing Advance Lignocelluosics into Advanced Materials.
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A total of $6.8 million over five years will be invested into converting biomass and plant-based matter into materials such as cellulose-based hydrogels for personal medicine, nanocellulose films to replace food packaging and nanogels to help farmers maintain their crops.
An industry consortium composed of Visy, Amcor, Circa, Leaf, Orora, and Norske Skog will join Monash, the University of Tasmania, the University of South Australia, the Tasmanian Government and AgroParis Tech as part of the ARC hub.
The research could significantly impact pulp and paper companies, turning them into potential bio-refineries.
Three objectives have been specified to achieve this industry transformation, which involve deriving green chemicals from Australian wood and lignocellulosic streams, engineering new nanocellulose applications and developing ultralight paper and novel packaging. Potential packaging could have significantly improved physical properties, such as including radio-frequency identification technology to integrate with transport or retail systems.
Bioresource Processing Research Institute of Australia Director Gil Garnier said the research will help the Australian pulp, paper and forestry industry transform their production waste into high-grade goods.
“This hub will leverage world-leading Australian and international research capabilities in chemistry, materials science and engineering with the express aim of creating new materials, companies and jobs for our growing bioeconomy,” Prof Garnier said.
“With ongoing support and vision from our government, industry and university partners, we will identify new applications and products derived from biowaste to transform the pharmaceutical, chemicals, plastics and food packaging industries in Australia and across the world.
“In fact, one of the goals is for our industry partners to generate, within four to 10 years, 25-50 per cent of their profits from products that don’t exist today,” he said.