Dangerous Goods Amendment (Penalty Reform) Bill 2019 Second Reading

11 Sep 2019

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I rise to speak on the Dangerous Goods Amendment (Penalty Reform) Bill 2019. This bill increases penalties for offences under the Dangerous Goods Act 1985 and creates a new offence for reckless conduct in respect to dangerous goods that endangers people. This comes in response to three major toxic fires that have occurred at sites over the last three years: Coolaroo in July 2017, West Footscray in August 2018 and Campbellfield in April 2019. These fires had significant health effects and environmental effects and of course raised significant community concern. So certainly we welcome stronger penalties for those who are doing the wrong thing when it comes to toxic and dangerous waste, but these penalties will only be as good as the enforcement system that accompanies them.

The recent interim report from the Inquiry into Recycling and Waste Management that was initiated by the Greens found that poor regulation enforcement had given rise to a culture of poor and negligent practice. Now, there are several factors that contributed to this risk that were found by the inquiry, including illegal dumping and storage of hazardous materials, overstockpiling of recyclable and other waste, lack of markets for waste, location of resource and recovery facilities and buildings that were not fit for purpose, and an inadequate system of proactive monitoring and enforcement of chemical waste storage.

The government has seen this issue, and we cannot entirely pin it on private operators, because the government has had the responsibility to enforce the rules and the regulations that look after Victorians’ public safety. And in terms of waste and recovery, when we look at the broader issue of the waste crisis that we are facing, this government has just left it up to private operators in the market. As the Auditor-General’s report found, there has been a complete lack of leadership and policy from the state government when it comes to waste. The Auditor-General’s report found that Victoria has had no overarching statewide policy on waste since 2014, no clear direction for agencies responsible for waste, strategies that do not provide clear and coherent guidance, strategies that are not being implemented effectively and a lack of clear roles and responsibilities in the waste and recovery sector. It was an absolutely damning report of the failure of government to show leadership when it comes to waste and recycling.

You cannot just simply pin the current problems on the private operators or local councils. In relation to the risk from the change in China’s policy the previous speaker, the member for Essendon, indicated, ‘Oh, well, this was an arbitrary decision and nobody could ever have predicted it’. But as found in the Auditor-General’s report, 2013 was when we first saw some of the changes in the policy in China, which should have foreshadowed some of the broader policies. In July 2017 China announced that it would restrict waste impacts, but the government did not know whether China would actually do it and did not take the proactive response that was required at the time. This problem we have seen coming.

It has been a failure of policy and leadership from the state government. That is why we are in this mess at the moment. Just back onto dangerous goods and toxic chemicals, given the risks of stockpiling and the record of poor management of hazardous waste in this state it is now concerning that we are seeing potentially a new industry in Victoria that is set to generate tens of thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste annually. That industry is waste-to-energy incineration. Now, I want to make this clear—there are not too many members in the chamber—waste-to-energy is just a no-go. I would plead with the government when they are looking at what they can do to solve the waste crisis: waste-to-energy just simply is not it. Do not go ahead with this.

There are now four major proposals for waste incinerators in Victoria that could potentially consume our entire municipal and even some commercial waste streams without any further organic recyclable waste being removed. These incinerators threaten to stop and stifle our shift to zero waste in the circular economy by locking councils into long-term contracts for waste generation and not waste reduction. I am aware of certain cases in the United States, if I am correct, where local municipalities have actually been taken to court by the incinerators for not providing the amount of waste that they were contractually obliged to provide. We do not need that sort of situation here in Victoria.

Despite being a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, committing us to phasing out these toxic, persistent organic pollutants, we have now got plans to create a new and very large source of them. We know that Lyndhurst is our only landfill that accepts large volumes of hazardous waste, and it is set to be full in the coming years. With an incinerator operational for about 30 years, that is going to be tens of thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste produced. Where is that going to go? What community is that going to go into? Can we deal with that amount of waste? I would say no. The fact is also that waste incinerators generate climate pollution. In some United States Environmental Protection Authority studies and other studies across Europe they find that they are more polluting than coal-fired power stations for energy output.

Waste incineration is not a renewable source of energy; it is an extractive industry that burns waste made from resources, primarily oil. Let us not substitute one dirty practice for another. We have got to look at real solutions to get us out of the waste crisis. I think Victorians would absolutely be right in just thinking, ‘What is going on with the waste crisis here in Victoria when tonnes of recycling is going to landfill?’. We have got around $400 million in the Sustainability Fund, raised through a levy on household bins for this very purpose: to fix the waste crisis. We have only really seen drip-feeding coming from the government—little bits here, little bits there—without a holistic change to fix the waste crisis. Just in the last sitting week we finally got a ban on single-use plastic bags. That is step one of many steps.

We need to go further in getting rid of those unnecessary single-use plastics. We need to get the container deposit scheme working. Every single state and territory has either got a scheme or is planning to do a scheme. That is incredible. It has the overwhelming support of the public as well. Then there is organic waste recycling. Getting organics out of the waste stream will be a massive benefit. Organics are some of the most polluting waste there is. We need kerbside organic waste, and it should be the state government that takes the lead on that particular proposal, given the difficulties individual councils have in actually making that financially viable. Some councils find it difficult because of the number of flats and apartments they have got, so it should be state governments that actually take the lead in that.

We need to set things like mandatory procurement targets. The government does have a social procurement strategy, but we need mandatory targets in there for physical materials and also things like food. So much food that is commercially viable is absolutely wasted and thrown out for various reasons. Commercial companies do not want to put a different product on the shelves or because it is a test product or something like that. The government needs to facilitate this so that that food does not end up in landfill. Of course there is also the infrastructure investment needed to create a local recycling industry here in Victoria. We could have a plastic recycling plant that could essentially take the remainder of our plastic waste and recycle that here in Victoria. These measures need to be put in place.

The previous speaker, the member for Essendon, put forward a saying, ‘If you move in haste, you will have regrets later’. Well, there is no chance of this government having regrets due to moving in haste, because they certainly have not moved in great haste when it comes to this waste crisis. I think they are going to regret taking their time on this. I would urge the government to make sure that the Environment Protection Authority Victoria has proper regulation in place for dangerous and toxic materials. Increased penalties are an element, but they need to be properly enforced. Do not go ahead with any waste-to-energy incineration. We do not need it here in Victoria.

It is going in the wrong direction. Get on with fixing the waste crisis. I would also point out, just in terms of waste-to-incineration, an open letter to the Premier and local councils from a number of organisations, including the Boomerang Alliance, Zero Waste Victoria, the National Toxics Network, Transform Waste, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria, Cash for Containers, Environment East Gippsland and Plastic Bag Free Victoria. They are all calling for: … an urgent moratorium on any approvals, subsidies and support for all types of waste-to-energy incinerators, which includes those using mass combustion, gasification, pyrolysis technologies and cogeneration projects with the coal, paper and cement industry sectors … there are a number of large proposals being fast-tracked without full environmental and human health impact assessment, and that assessment of their impact on recycling now and in the future has been grossly inadequate.

Waste-to-energy incinerators are more polluting than coal and gas-fired power stations for energy output, they generate tens of thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste in the form of ash each and every year, and threaten to undermine our transition to a circular economy by locking in local councils to long-term contracts with the same unsustainable linear model of resource extraction, production, single-use, waste generation and disposal that has failed us for decades. Waste incineration—waste-to-energy—is not the way to go. So many good proposals are on the table now to fix the waste crisis. And do you know what? They could be implemented. The funds are there to implement them. I urge the government to get on and do it.

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