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How Kaniva's toxic waste dump clean

Feb 16, 2024

Row upon row of disused gas bottles are packed like sardines into cages, arranged in a huge grid at a rural property on Victoria's western edge.

Like a massive outdoor museum exhibit, it is a window into the past of Victoria's waste disposal industry: ad hoc and, at times, illegal.

But where these cylinders are headed next points to the industry's future.

Fifty-one thousand of these acetylene tanks were found in 32 underground holes at the Lemon Springs property — first uncovered in 2018.

There is no recycling industry for cylinders like these in Australia.

So a private company is creating one from scratch.

Earlier this year, Victoria's Environmental Protection Authority permitted EnviroPacific to build a dedicated facility to recycle the cylinders in Stawell, two hours towards Melbourne from Lemon Springs.

Here the cylinders will eventually be stored, removed of any remaining gas and cut up for the acetone and steel shells to be reused.

EnviroPacific resource recovery manager Damien Bassett said there was no lawful pathway for the disposal of hazardous acetylene cylinder waste in Australia.

"There's only international options through Europe and the US," he said.

"The cylinders contain both asbestos matrix along with an acetone liquid, and residual acetylene. We have to go through a full process to extract that material."

The site will process around 25,000 cylinders per annum once operations begin in December.

"Once operational we will be employing five people on a permanent basis, all from the local area," he said.

"I think it shows we are able to provide (domestic) solutions for waste streams — that we don't necessarily have to go overseas, and the local knowledge and capacity in our own marketplace is above international options."

EPA project manager Julian Bull said it was a national issue.

"The major gas industries are stockpiling [cylinders], so to be able to set up that facility and it be a national solution for the industry is a real positive," he said.

Also found at the Lemon Springs property was 1.65 million litres of liquid chemical waste in barrels and 40,000 cubic metres of soil contaminated by fluid leaking from the containers.

The waste had toxic, corrosive, flammable, explosive, infectious or otherwise dangerous characteristics.

In April, EnviroPacific finished nearly three years' worth of work to clean it all up, needing to build a miniature city to do so.

A total of 70 workers — as many as 30 at a time — spent weeks-long stints sweating into their boots and hazmat suits while excavating and isolating the waste, living in nearby Kaniva while doing so.

"This has been the most complex clean-up the EPA has been involved in … and probably one of the most complex Australia has ever seen," Mr Bull said.

He said because of this, the EPA had to improve its clean-up techniques.

"We started off with excavators with buckets, thinking we'd be pulling waste out of the ground," he said.

"We then started to realise it wasn't a viable solution and that it was very hazardous in there, and [EnviroPacfiic] procured some grabs to go on the end of the excavators, which had rubber to make sure there were no sparks, and that they weren't causing any explosions.

"We were dealing with multiple different waste types … PFAS, medical waste, chemical waste, asbestos, acetylene cylinders, all buried in 32 locations across the site, and these varied from one big trench to places the size of AFL football fields."

At a meeting this week, the EPA also told locals they found a dog wrapped in a mattress, clothing and cash during excavations.

"[We had to figure out] the best way to get asbestos out of the ground in the quickest and safest possible manner," Mr Bull said.

"Again, the way we started doing that, compared to the way we ended up doing that, had some real learnings.

"Hopefully we never do this again, but if we did, we'd be able to write a tender tomorrow."

Mr Bull said all the waste and contaminated soil from the alleged dump had been removed, and all the cylinders would be in Stawell imminently.

He said the Kaniva clean-up project cost around $40 million — which included unexpected costs from the discovery of asbestos and contaminated runoff caused by heavy rains.

"We've backfilled 26 of the locations with clean soil now … we have a few to go, and then it will just be the final tidy up of a couple of areas," he said.

"The most important thing was protecting that regional groundwater aquifer, which the region depends on. We have put in groundwater wells across the site … there will be 50 by the time we finish."

Local farmers' concerns about groundwater contamination or a fire at the property did not materialise, but precautions will continue.

While the workers will be gone by July, periodic work to monitor the wells will continue for six months, and the wells themselves will stay for five years.

The site owner, Graham Leslie White, is before the Supreme Court facing three charges of dumping industrial waste and recklessly and intentionally causing environmental hazards at Lemon Springs.

He is also facing a further 39 similar charges, relating to properties he owned at Tottenham, Epping and Campbellfield in Melbourne.

Some of the waste there was destined for Lemon Springs.

The trial is due to begin in February next year. If found guilty, he could face decades in prison and tens of millions of dollars in fines.

Mr Bull said the EPA would pursue Mr White to recover the cost of the clean-ups, including those at the Melbourne sites.

"Trying to work out how much it has cost to clean up all the sites ... I think we were getting up to $150 million odd," he said.

Mr Bull said the future of the Lemon Springs site would be decided after the legal process finished, and the EPA had talked with conservation groups and traditional owners.

"We won't be looking at large-scale vegetation removal or building dwellings," he said.

But for Kaniva residents like farmer Noel Austin, all that matters is that the dump is gone, and that the clean-up was pretty fast, all things considered.

"We're pleased with the way the public was informed as it was being carried out," he said.

"At the time [of the discovery] there were a lot of people very concerned, but now there are no concerns whatsoever.

"We can get back to normal."

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