- WASTE WOES: The problems Perth businesses face
- PILE UP: Asbestos fears create stockpiles of rubble
- ON THE RISE: Illegal dumping of building waste rockets
NEW Environment Minister Stephen Dawson has inherited a big headache: growing mountains of construction and demolition rubble around Perth — physical evidence of a failing policy.
The landfill levy rate has been hiked from $12 to $90 a cubic metre in just three years, in a bid to discourage the waste going to landfill. The rate is to rise to $105 a cubic metre next July.
The ambitious target is to divert 75 per cent of C&D waste away from landfill by 2020. The alternative is recycling, but businesses which have invested in crushing plants say there’s little or no commercial demand for the end product.
Some companies have complained they can’t even give it away and are running out of room to store all their rubble.
The C&D stockpiles are just half the problem. Rampant illegal dumping is another consequence of the levy hike. And while a question mark hangs over whether there’s asbestos in legal stockpiles, the lethal material is frequently found in illegally tipped loads.
It was revealed last month, a Waste Authority report estimates stockpiles reached in excess of 1.6 million tonnes last year. There are currently 51 licensed C&D recycling plants in Perth.
Residents living near stockpiles are worried about dust blowing their way, given the range of contaminants in building materials.
The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation this week confirmed it is currently investigating four C&D recycling facilities in the Perth metro area. A spokesman said: “As the matters are under investigation it is inappropriate to name the facilities or comment on the nature of the complaints/concerns.”
In general, the regulator said “there should be low risk of airborne asbestos, provided the licence is complied with”. But some operators argue that is a “big if” because not everyone in the industry does the right thing.
Complaints made last year by residents in Adelaide Street, Hazelmere, about a C&D recycling plant at the end of their road spewing dust. DWER responded by imposing stricter dust control conditions on the plant’s licence. It has also undertaken dust monitoring.
The head of the Federal Government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency said the C&D waste issue needed national attention.
Chief executive Peter Tighe said there was a “problem in oversight and ensuring compliance nationally”.
Problems start when asbestos isn’t completely removed from buildings prior to demolition.
“Because there’s a lot of money involved in (the industry) there is a need to make sure all of these operators play the game,” he said.
“There are cost impacts and that’s the problem.”
Mr Tighe said there needed to be compliance checks at every stage in the recycling process, starting with ensuring all asbestos was removed before demolition.
“The problem is the contamination goes down the supply chain,” he said.
“You can’t rely on self-regulation because it just doesn’t work at the end of the day.
“There’s too much attraction to cut corners.
“If any asbestos made it through to the crushing process, it could become hazardous.
“When you crush it, it goes from a non-friable product that might be dangerous around the edges to a situation where when you bust up that cement matrix that’s when you get fibres in the air.”
WA’s Master Builders Association construction director Kim Richardson agreed the risks should be properly managed.
“Working in the construction industry by its nature involves the demolition of older buildings which have contained asbestos at one time or another,” he said.
“While it can be removed, as far as reasonably practicable, there are materials which contain asbestos as an innate part of their structure, for example sheeting, tiles and plasterboard, fuse boxes, plumbing pits. What happens to that?”
A recent survey of C&D waste recyclers conducted by Murdoch University for the MBA drew attention to the industry’s dark side.
“Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are many operators who operate without the requisite licence and that DWER has insufficient resources to discover these,” the report said.
“Consequently there is little or no checking if there are any operators who are dealing with these wastes without the appropriate licences and following correct procedures.”
The report acknowledged the spike in stockpiling and illegal dumping, as a consequence of the levy rate increases. It also noted that it was possible to avoid paying the levy by taking wastes to landfills outside the metro area.
“With no requirements to track or source waste movements currently, illegal dumping and levy avoidance is more likely and with little risk to the perpetrators … NSW is in the process of implementing GPS tracking systems for all vehicles that transport waste,” the report added.
“This will likely become a factor in the deterrence of these illegal activities … WA is comparatively behind in its legislation and waste tracking ability when compared to interstate arrangements.
“The requirement of licensing for waste transporters and receipts for the disposal of waste would enable DWER to better fulfil its role as a regulator.”
The Murdoch University report also addressed the issue of low demand for recycled concrete in civil construction, which had resulted in stockpiling.
The biggest potential user is Main Roads, which stopped using it in road base in 2012, because of asbestos contamination.
“Because the use of recycled aggregate is currently not supported by Main Roads WA this can cause a negative view elsewhere in the industry,” the Murdoch University report noted.
On Friday, Main Roads spokesman Dean Roberts said the agency didn’t intend to reintroduce recycled concrete in its road base specifications at this stage.
“Main Roads is seeking to use crushed recycled concrete on an upcoming Alliance project, if commercially feasible, where the risks can be closely monitored and assessed,” he said.
“Crushed recycled concrete is most suited to smaller scale works such as on lower traffic local government roads,” he added.
But some councils won’t touch the product.
To address the lack of demand, former Environment Minister Albert Jacob announced $10 million of financial incentives for local governments to use recycled C&D waste. But since the introduction of the Recycled Construction Products Program in March last year, only $20,000 has been spent. The cities of Canning and Swan got $10,000 each.
The RCPP hasn’t put a dent in the rubble mountains. And recycling companies say they’d go broke overnight if the levy was applied to their stockpiles.
Maddington-based recycling business Aurigen collapsed in the past fortnight. The business includes a C&D processing facility. DWER said it would write to the administrator to “remind them of their responsibilities under the licence and options to transfer or surrender the licence”.
“DWER will also continue to undertake periodic compliance inspections of the premises,” a spokesman said.
Mr Dawson this week said the RCPP program had been extended by a year “to recognise the challenges for the recycling industry to increase the uptake of recycled C&D materials” amid “low market acceptance”.
He has already called for a review of the Waste Strategy.
Quarry wall work on hold
COLIN Zampatti claims he can’t fulfil a request by Main Roads and the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety to buttress a quarry wall — to protect the Mitchell Freeway extension — because another arm of government is stopping him.
Mr Zampatti, managing director of RCG, said the suspension of his licence by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation in July had closed his business and forced him to lay off six workers at Quinns Quarry, in Neerabup.
The western wall of the former limestone pit sits alongside the new freeway extension.
A Main Roads spokesman yesterday confirmed it was keen to see the work completed.
“The geotechnical report carried out by RCG Pty Ltd at the request of Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety suggests backfilling … to ensure a stable slope is achieved,” the spokesman said.
Mr Zampatti said DWER revoked his licence for non-payment of almost $1 million in landfill levy fees. But he disputes the levy applies to the mining site.
He said he’s getting legal assistance from former WA governor Malcolm McCusker to challenge the levy issue.
Mr Zampatti added he’s been landfilling construction and demolition waste to backfill the quarry and restore the area to natural bushland. The increase in the levy rate meant it would cost him $100 million to complete the backfilling and close out the mining operation.
DWER said the licence suspension did not prevent RCG from completing the buttress.
“(It) prevents RCG from operating an inert landfill,” a spokesman said.
But Mr Zampatti insists it bars him from bringing in material to complete the wall.
“(DWER) surveyed the whole site to make sure no material comes in … they even put cameras in the trees,” he said.
DMIRS mines safety director Andrew Chaplyn said it had met with RCG and DWER to discuss the implications of suspending landfill operations.
Cheats rife in waste industry
CHEATING can be the only way to survive in the strife-torn construction and demolition waste industry, one Perth operator claims.
“(For many) if you’re not cheating in some form, you are going to go broke,” the business owner said on the condition of anonymity.
By cheating he means:
THROWING away dirty test results that show asbestos contamination, to avoid regulator scrutiny and huge costs dealing with the problem.
TRANSPORTING construction and demolition waste from the metro area to bury in landfill in regional centres such as Bunbury, to avoid paying the landfill levy.
BLENDING it with clean sand.
He said no business would knowingly put asbestos through its recycling process, but sometimes it got through the screening process before crushing.
Demolition contractors can no longer afford to bury waste in Perth landfills because the levy rate has increased sharply.
But the levy doesn’t apply outside of Perth, so companies are simply trucking their construction and demolition waste to Bunbury or Muchea to landfill there instead. Others have amassed giant stockpiles that they can’t afford to dispose of.
“I liken the levy to prohibition of alcohol, it’s never ever going to work,” the business operator said. “It can’t work. If it does work then we all go broke … the industry has changed. It has had to, to survive.”
Perth household recycling at 10-year low
The businessman said it should be obvious that people were bending the rules.
“Prices for demolishing a house have gone down, prices for skip bin hire have gone down while the levy has gone up. That tells you there is something wrong. What you have now is a number of companies who are cheating,” he said.
“There’s a number of ways of getting around the levy, but it’s all at the expense of the environment.
“If I turn waste into powder … or sand granules and blend it with sand, it’s going to go straight back into the environment. No one would knowingly put asbestos through it but what if it has paint with lead on it? It could have PCBs in it, it could have dieldrin in it.”
The operator said the industry was essentially “self-policing”.