SPEECH: Disposal of toxic waste

Today Mark spoke of his concerns and the concerns of the community in relation to Southern Waste ResourceCo's application to the Environment Protection Agency to receive, store, treat and dispose of waste contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at its landfill site on Tatachilla Road, McLaren Vale.

I rise today to express my concern about a proposal to dump toxic waste at McLaren Vale. I have been approached by a number of residents and local businesses, as well as my colleagues in the Kingston branch of the Greens, who are desperately worried about the proposal currently being considered by the EPA. In February this year, Southern Waste ResourceCo (SWR) sought approval from the EPA to receive, store, treat and dispose of waste contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (more commonly known as PFAS) at its landfill operation located on Tatachilla Road.

As we all know by now, the use of PFAS in a range of industrial applications, but particularly in firefighting foams, has led to the contamination of sites across the country, particularly in relation to airports and fire stations. These dangerous and noxious chemicals, once discharged into the open, find their way into soils as well as polluting surface and groundwater. The US EPA describes these chemicals as:

…very persistent in the environment and in the human body—meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.

It goes on to describe those health effects as including cancer and impacts on the human immune system.

Because these chemicals are so dangerous, it is quite appropriate for any contaminated land or water to be rehabilitated. As a result, the remediation projects usually generate wastes in the forms of PFAS-contaminated soil, PFAS-activated carbon and PFAS-contaminated sludge. The question then becomes: what do we do with these dangerous waste products? Nowhere in South Australia currently meets the EPA's minimum standards for disposal; however, the SWR proposal has now become the first South Australian landfill operator to apply to have PFAS-contaminated waste added to its EPA licence.

Clearly, this waste creates a problem and it must be disposed of, but in McLaren Vale? Seriously? In my view and in the view of local residents, McLaren Vale is not an appropriate location for this disposal. Of course, these dangerous substances will have to go somewhere, but why on earth would you put them where people live, where there is a potential to pollute groundwater or where it will adversely affect local industry?

The Tatachilla Road site fails on all three of these measures. Residents are naturally worried about living with the risk of exposure to these persistent toxins. Despite environmental protection measures which will no doubt be put in place, there remains a threat that the pollutants could leach into the water and pose a further threat to surrounding areas.

In terms of value, McLaren Vale is Australia's fifth largest wine region and the largest producer of certified organic or biodynamic wines. Meanwhile, the area's tourism numbers have boomed in recent years. The number of day trippers has risen considerably, now at 351,000, and overnight stays have grown 45 per cent in the last four years. The McLaren Vale district represents some of South Australia's most significant assets. Why would we put those at risk by bringing in dangerous chemicals for storage, treatment and disposal?

No doubt the driving force behind the nomination of the site is cost. Transporting this toxic waste to an existing waste facility that is relatively close to the likely rehabilitation sites will no doubt reduce transport costs compared with taking the material further away from sensitive land uses and valuable agriculture, but that does not mean it should be approved. Dealing with contamination is expensive, but that is the price we have to pay for past mistakes. The cost should be borne by the polluters, including governments, but not by the residents and businesses of McLaren Vale.

The EPA has consulted with the local community as they are required to, and the response they have received is both predictable and reasonable: 'Don't put it here!' Residents also believe their needs to be much greater transparency in the process, more rigorous consultation and an economic impact report to investigate the impact on McLaren Vale and the wider Fleurieu region. An interesting Letter to the Editor on this topic was written by Professor Jim Gehling, who said:

Both the current McLaren Vale waste depot and the old, down-slope North Maslin sand quarry are entirely unsuitable for storing contaminated waste.

As a geologist, I can see this would act like a virtual wick to the underground reservoir of precious water supplying vineyards for our world-famous McLaren Vale region wines.

Even if lined, storage of toxic chemical waste south of Tatachilla Road is like burying old rat cubes in your children's sandpit.

For the sake of public health, for the sake of the environment and for the sake of the economy, the dumping of PFAS-contaminated waste at McLaren Vale must not be allowed to proceed.