Read this about EPA’s track records

NSW-based company Innova Soil Technology first announced in July 2009, its plans to build a treatment plant at the Dow Chemical site in Kororoit Creek Rd for recycling contaminated soil from old industrial and building sites, gas works and petrol stations across Victoria. Trucks would bring the harmful soil to an enclosed facility, where it would be heated and cleaned indoors (Ref 1, 2, 3, 4). This $50 million facility is named the “Centre for Soil Remediation” but is better known as the “Toxic Soil Facility” by local communities and newspapers.


To support its business case, Innova made a number of claims highlighting its credentials and advantage. First, its technology known as Direct-heated Fast-quenched Thermal Desorption (DFTD), is the only one of its kind in Australia and is patented in several countries. However, being the first does not necessarily mean it is the best. A competitor Renex has laid claim to a more superior technology (Ref 5).


Secondly, its operations are completely safe with no harmful emissions. Its operations manager Dr Nick Ebrill said the polluted soil would be transported to the site in EPA-registered covered trucks, designed not to leak and unloaded in an air-locked building with dust and odour filters. The trucks will only travel 1.2 km from the Princes Highway along Grieve Pde and Kororoit Creek Rd to the site and would not pass through residential areas. The plant would have no impact on surrounding properties (Ref 3, 2). I am sure the BP offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the Chernoby nuclear plant in Ukraine and the Union Carbide plant in India were all designed against accidents. Closer at home, spills occurred at the Altona Mobil Refinery from time to time, with a major explosion in 1991 (Ref 6). I had mentioned in an earlier post that both the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and Casey Council had to pay a collective $13.5 million compensation to residents of Brookland Greens estate due to methane leaks from a nearby landfill. I am now reiterating points from that post because this has direct bearing to the Innova’s venture.

In 2010, a Victorian Auditor-General report found that EPA inadequately regulated management of hazardous waste – including potentially explosive, toxic, radioactive and infectious material – at about 10,000 sites across the state (Ref 7). In 2008-09, the EPA made 46% fewer inspections of sites licensed to deal with hazardous waste than 4 years earlier, in part because it had adopted a policy of ”greater self-regulation” by business. The EPA said this was part of a decision to ”redirect effort to focus on other priorities”. But the Auditor-General’s Office found that EPA could not name the new priorities, nor explain why they were more important than monitoring compliance with the law.

Acting Auditor-General Peter Frost said the EPA’s monitoring and inspection lacked coherence, purpose and co-ordination. He found its records were unreliable, with information on hazardous waste spread across 9 databases, some of them incomplete. As a consequence, there is little assurance that hazardous waste is stored and disposed of appropriately.

Other findings included:

  • While the EPA once inspected all vehicles carrying hazardous waste, it now approved 95% of permit applications based on basic paperwork.
  • Recycled waste was not monitored, prompting fears it may be stockpiled or dumped.
  • Hazardous waste licence holders were not required to guarantee they could pay to clean up potential breaches, exposing the state to significant financial risk.

When I read all these, my heart sank. Does having an EPA stamp on trucks matter if EPA does not conduct regular checks? Do we feel adequately protected under the auspices of EPA’s approval? I had called EPA a few times regarding plastics-burning odours emanating from the Qenos plant. I always get the standard response that somebody will return me a call to answer my concerns but I never receive a followup call. So in the end I gave up trying. EPA held an open house on 20 Oct 2010 at the Finnish Hall in Pier Street. I specifically went there to seek the answer and I was told to contact either Qenos or the Altona Complex Neighborhood Consultative Group (ACNCCG). I cannot help but feel that EPA is just passing the buck around.

Of personal concern to me is the truck route along Grieve Parade which will pass by a childcare centre at the Westgate Sports & Leisure Centre, where I send my two kids to.

The safety assurances were weakened through several separate incidences. The submissions to EPA contain many highly technical questions that require a fair bit of knowledge regarding Innova’s technology, operations and history, which I myself being outside of this field will not be able to raise. This leads me to think there are considerable concerns from the “experts“. Innova had answered all the questions as required but we do not know whether the persons who raised these questions are satisfied with the response. The report does not have provisions for individuals to seek further clarifications on the replies given. Neither do we know if EPA follows up on the responses (e.g. validating them) or if this submission process is merely an administrative procedure for compliance with legislation and has no real significant controls and checks. For example, one person was concerned about the financial state of Innova. I doubt if EPA checks the balance sheet or cashflow of Innova. If it really has an estimated annual sales of $183,653 according to online data, then this is not much. Once a major hazard facility is being established, it will be very expensive to remove. Hence, this concern is of high relevance and importance in ensuring that we are not saddled with an unsustainable legacy in the future.

There are at least two publicly-known independent sources of “expert” opinions that question the safety standards.  Geoff Mitchelmore, a former chief chemist with Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria and the current president of the Friends of Lower Kororoit Creek, has investigated soil remediation sites overseas. He was concerned about the potential for the soil to include toxic chemicals and consequent exposure to dust containing heavy metals. He said:

I disagree with putting a dusty environment anywhere near the residential areas in Hobsons Bay. It’s the beginning of the end. They’ll bring in everything they can. Long term, we are going to be recipients of all these unwanted soils and what’s in them. It’s totally wrong to have all of Victoria’s waste dumped here.” (Ref 2, 5, 8)

A Dandenong-based soil treatment company Renex is appealing to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to overturn the approval EPA gave Innova in May 2011 for the Altona plant. It questions whether Innova’s proposal constitutes best practice and states that, unlike Innova’s planned operations, the Renex plant would be in a fully enclosed building, is better equipped to manage emissions and will like to treat all Victoria’s toxic soil at its Dandenong South site. Renex faces similar strong objections from local communities including the environmental group RATWISE (Residents Against Toxic Waste in the South East). Renex turned to VCAT after Dandenong Council refused to grant a permit because of the risk of untreated emissions and other concerns. After gaining approvals from both EPA and VCAT, Renex is able to establish its plant at Dandenong South (Ref 59 , 10, 11).

There appears to be much money to be made from soil remediation for Renex had just received a $20 million investment from Cleantech Ventures and an institutional investor (Ref 12), and another waste company SITA Environmental Solutions had also made an application (Ref 10). It is no wonder that Renex wants the cake all to itself. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Innova will aim to expand beyond servicing the west to all parts of Victoria in the future although Innova spokesman Ken Davis had said he suspected Innova might be servicing only the west (Ref 5).

Innova itself has refrained from making promises. At a public meeting hosted by EPA, a resident asked Innova CEO Associate Professor John Lucas if he could guarantee the soil contaminants being processed would not be responsible for cancers in the future. “We once thought asbestos was safe,” she said. He replied that the utmost care would be employed when transporting and processing the soil. I think the reason why he did not make a guarantee is that he simply does not have the answer (Ref 18). This slip, which would unlikely to have occurred in a written response, probably reflects Innova’s reservations about its own confidence to foresee and prevent any incidence, accident or adverse effects.

Community Consultations

Innova has made repeated public claims that it has widespread support for the facility. On 21 Aug 2009, it claimed the following on its now defunct “Bang the Table” website (a snapshot is available here):

Innova Soil Technology has been delighted and encouraged by the community response to our proposal to clean contaminated soil within the City of Hobsons Bay. The opportunity to cleanse soil from local polluted sites in the area – returning them to light industrial, commercial or housing development, even parklands, recreation reserves or sporting facilities in some instances – has met with strong support. The legacy of previous generations needs to be addressed now and not left to future generations. (Ref 14).

In a letter to the City Council, Innova stated:

… community, environmental groups and local business have generally responded very positively to the proposal. Indeed environmental groups are enthusiastic about the possibility of cleaning up … sites in the West.” (Ref 17)

A letter from the Hobsons Bay Residents’ Association to the City Council reveals that Innova had hired a consultant, disguised as a resident member of the Altona Complex Neighbourhood Consultative Group (ACNCG), to approach residents to sign a petition in support of the proposal. These residents were told that the application was merely to clean up local contaminated sites and were not told that this is a permanent facility to serve the whole of Victoria. They were also unaware that the petition was commissioned by the developer. The petition is more a refiection of Innova’s resolve to gain the appearance of community support rather than actual community support.

Local newspapers had reported about ACNCG setting up a stall in Pier Street on 1 Dec 2009 during the Beach Market to garner support for Innova’s proposal (Ref 1, 8). The OAM Deputy Chair of ACNCG Judy Hindle said the group spoke to about 100 residents and 99% of them endorsed the proposal.

We’ve got really big issues, especially in Hobsons Bay with contaminated sites and I think we need to move forward to protect our kids and grandkids…. People were so inspired a company had the initiative to come into Hobsons Bay and do something.”

She said Innova would be answerable to residents if they didn’t adhere to strict guidelines.

People are going to watch this company very closely and they would need to have their act together.

To boost her credibility as an independent voice, she said she had fought against similar proposals in the past.

I was first to lobby against a project that was to be done at the BP site in Altona from years ago. That’s because I didn’t believe it was an appropriate process. This one I just really believe that it’s all inside a building, the trucks are securely covered.

Another ACCG member Maureen Short said she was excited at the prospect of the contaminated sites in Hobsons Bay being cleaned.

“(Innova) are very transparent, and I think we can all feel self-assured they can do a great job.”

The latest ACCG newsletter (last published in June 2011) or previous issues did not list Maureen Short as an ACCG member. She is possibly the paid consultant referred to by the Hobsons Bay Residents’ Association, as mentioned by the current Mayor Tony Briffa in this article:

Ms Short shamefully failed to mention that she was a paid consultant to the developer [Innova] behind the application for the facility in Altona and had worked for the petrochemical industry for decades.

Maureen Short who previously worked for Mobil and Qenos, had made the local newspapers’ headlines last year when she was embroiled in heated exchanges with Tony Briffa.

Innova held an open day at the Dow complex on 5 Dec 2009 after the community called for it (Ref 16, 17, 18). The Hobsons Bay Residents’ Association noted that the open day was carefully orchestrated and was only advertised a week earlier. The day consisted of carefully-scripted powerpoint presentation for groups of 15-20 residents punctuated by comments from Innova’s public relations consultants. Innova had failed to provide answers to many questions (Ref 19).

Annoyed at accusations that it is a spin doctor, Innova said it had the support of 3 groups (Ref 20):

  • ACNCG – hardly a neutral party.
  • EnviroWest – an anti-landfill group based in Werribee.
  • Habitat Trust – which was created with the aim of bringing together a network of highly qualified specialists with proven track record in the construction industry to deliver high quality and cost effective services/projects.

Community Voices

Resident groups across the west and 3500 residents who signed a petition, have condemned the proposal and EPA for granting Innova approval to proceed. Residents say it will make Hobsons Bay the “toxic dump capital of Victoria“, in addition to being the state’s “asthma capital” (Ref  5, 21).

Colin Palmer, head of the Hobsons Bay Residents Association, said he was disgusted.

The community was very opposed to the application, as seen by our petition of 3500 residents, and they [the EPA] haven’t even responded to a lot of the community’s concerns. Why should we have a permanent facility in Altona to clean up the state’s toxic soil? It seems like the west is always treated like the state’s dumping ground.” (Ref 22)

Current Hobsons Bay Mayor Tony Briffa was scathing in his criticism.

The EPA is supposed to be the defender of our environment. Today they’ve shown they’re the defenders of industry over the environment and the wishes of the community.” (Ref 22) “Innova’s repeated claims the community are largely in support of their proposed contaminated soil facility in Altona are misleading at best.” (Ref 17)

Geoff Mitchelmore, President of the Friends of Lower Kororoit Creek group said the proposal was alarming.

The site where they are suggesting to put this in is bounded by residential areas on all sides. This is going to have a major impact on the residents of Hobsons Bay. We don’t want a toxic waste dump in our municipality and we’re going to fight this to the bitter end” (Ref 3) “How can they make such a claim when there has not been public consultation to date and their briefings so far have been to a very limited audience?” (Ref 14)

Sunshine Residents and Ratepayers Association President Darlene Reilly said the government and EPA were already grappling with environmental pollution on the troubled Brooklyn estate, which adjoins residential areas of Hobsons Bay, Maribyrnong and Brimbank. She said it didn’t make sense to bring toxic soil to be treated in the middle of Australia’s biggest growth corridor.

They’re playing with people’s lives, their health. It shouldn’t be anywhere near houses and homes. The west is the fastest-growing area – whatever population you have, double it. And you’re going to have a toxic dump next to it? Those sort of industries should be totally on the outer where no one is ever going to build.” (Ref 5)

Les Twentyman, a prominent youth outreach worker and one of Victoria’s best known social campaigners, said it was another example of contempt for the west.

Again it shows how disenfranchised the western suburbs residents are, even though the most powerful person in the land lives there.” (Ref 5)

Sophia Szostakowski, who lives about a kilometre from the proposed site, has collected 400 objections from residents.

We are concerned the plant is going to be 24-hours and noisy and will create odours. We are concerned about dust emissions, about bringing the soil through streets to Altona. If a truck breaks down, how do they move the soil from one truck to another? There are environmental issues to resolve, too, and health issues.” (Ref 1)

VCAT Ruling on Planning Permit 

Hobsons Bay City Council has claimed Innova was trying to sidestep planning procedures. Innova contends that it does not need to apply for a planning permit from the Council as its operation is located at the Dow site which is in a Special Use 3 Zone (SU3Z) and thus would qualify as a form of petrochemical industry. So it just requires an EPA works approval to start operations. But the Council said a planning permit is required as the operation is best defined as industrial and does not fit into the SU3Z, designed for the operation and expansion of the state’s petrochemical industries.  (Ref 17, 21)

With the Council and Innova locked in a dispute whether a planning permit is required or not, a proceeding was lodged with VCAT to decide on the land usage (Ref 4, 16). In October 2010, the VCAT tribunal found in the council’s favour and ruled that the facility requires a town planning permit because it is not a petrochemical industry (Ref 1, 7).

Tony Briffa was pleased with VCAT’s decision but was unhappy with how Innova dealt with the situation.

Innova has avoided going through the council’s planning processes and refused to allow the community to have a say about whether they want a soil decontamination facility in Altona. Innova’s gamble of going to VCAT to defend their claim that their soil remediation proposal was a petrochemical use was ill-advised. This decision means Innova will have to apply to the council for a planning permit if they still want to go ahead with a soil decontamination facility in Altona. This will include the community consultation they have so strenuously sought to avoid.” (Ref 7)

Innova lodged a formal application with the Council for a planning permit in October 2011 (Ref 1).

Statewide Review of Toxic Soil Treatment

There is currently an apparent lack of state policies governing the management of soil treatment facilities. At the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) state conference on 28 Oct 2011, Hobsons Bay Council won support from other Victorian councils for a statewide review into the siting and operation of soil treatment facilities. MAV will urge the state government to establish a policy that identifies sites for treating contaminated soil and to set environmental performance targets for operators (Ref 5, 21).

Hobsons Bay’s organization development director Chris Eddy wrote a letter dated 4 May 2011 to Environment Minister Ryan Smith and Planning Minister Matthew Guy, requesting a meeting to discuss plans to treat toxic soil at Altona. Mr. Smith replied that he had not thought such a meeting “necessary at this time“. The MAV resolved at the Dec 2011 board meeting to write to Mr Guy requesting the consideration of current and future siting and provision of soil treatment sites. Mr Guy said he was not aware of any letters from the council or MAV.

If they’ve written to me, I haven’t seen the letter. They haven’t come to me on that and I gotta be honest, that’s the first time anyone’s actually raised that with me.

Asked how he would feel about toxic soil being treated near his Preston home, Mr Guy replied:

Obviously, it’s preferably not near people’s homes, but it’s something that if the council and the MAV are keen to have a chat on I’d be very, very keen to sit down with them to have that conversation and ascertain their points of view on it.” (Ref 21)

Onsite Soil Remediation

It sounds as if Innova has no alternative but to site the soil treatment plant in Altona, which is within 1 km of people’s homes (Ref 23). However, it does have an option. It has been doing mostly onsite soil remediations except for two projects in which soil was transported from the contaminated site to a treatment facility at another location. This includes trucking the soil at AGL’s former Clyde St Gasworks site in Hamilton North, Newcastle on a 2.9 km or 5 minutes journey to its treatment facility at the former BHP Steelworks site in Mayfield.

In fact, Innova has regarded the ability of its technology to carry out onsite remediation as a key strength as this is repetitively emphasized on its website:

Innova Soil Technology Ltd, has developed an innovative Thermal Desorption Process to allow safe, reliable and efficient on-site treatment of all hydrocarbon contaminated soils….The thermal desorption process is fully relocatable to allow onsite treatment of contaminants at the source….The treatment facility is fully mobile allowing on-site treatment of contaminated soil with subsequent beneficial reuse of treated soil on-site…. (Ref 24, 24a)

A significant advantage of the Innova solution is that it is fully mobile, being transported on five or six semi-trailers from site to site. The plant, some 12 x 30 metres, is set up on-site, treats the problem and then moves on. There is no need for off-site transportation of hazardous wastes on public roads or establishing a management facility in a particular community (Ref 24b). It may still be possible to obtain a transcript of Dr. John Lucas’ past statement/speech in November 2002. But this is 10 years back so he may have changed his thinking.

Tony Briffa was spot on when he highlighted this particular core capability of Innova:

A facility like this should be built further away from the metropolitan area. Innova has shown it is possible to decontaminate soil in situ via a temporary, mobile facility. That being the case, there is no need to establish a permanent facility to process the state’s contaminated soil here in Altona.” (Ref 1)

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States had advocated the use of in-situ or onsite treatment over ex-situ treatment:

Compared to excavation and ex situ treatment, the use of these technologies offers several benefits, such as addressing deep contamination and gener­ally costing less.” (Ref 25)

Innova had explained that the treatment equipment is large, will not fit on small sites and is unable to use the regular domestic gas supply. I presume the gas supply problem had been overcome in its previous onsite remediation projects. The Aero petrol station in Pier St North, Altona is one of the smaller petrol stations and measures roughly 45 x 46 m. Innova’s plant, which is 12 x 30 m, should be able to fit into most petrol stations.

The requirement for a permanent off-site facility indicates that there are still limitations with its technology.  If Innova is serious in aiming to export its technology overseas, it should do more work in its R & D so that space will not become a constraining and limiting factor. For example, it should work on how to make its equipment smaller or to break down a single equipment/process into several modules. I believe that Innova will encounter community resistance to a permanent treatment facility anywhere it goes. Hence, in-situ remediation should be the way forward. It may not be forced to strive for improvements in the absence of pressure to do so.

I think the real motive in Innova’s push for a permanent treatment facility is to cut down costs and increase its profits. If the Altona plant goes ahead, it will no longer carry out any onsite soil remediation in Victoria. Instead, it will depend solely on transporting contaminated soils to the Altona plant for treatment as this will translate to massive cost savings. Doing away with onsite remediation and consolidating operations at one site means:

  • soils from different sites can be combined and stockpiled to a sufficiently large quantity before treatment to achieve economy of scale.
  • it is not necessary to build and dismantle infrastructure at each temporary site.
  • probably there are less administrative work, application procedures and bureaucratic approvals involved if you are simply trucking soils away from a contaminated site rather than installing heavy machinery on the site.

Current Status

Before it can operate, Innova needs both a town planning permit (under the Planning and Environment Act) and a Works Approval which was approved by EPA.

Hobsons Bay Council will be considering the town planning permit application at a Special Planning Committee Meeting to be held at the Council Chambers at 115 Civic Pde, Altona on 22 March 2012, 6 p.m. The public can attend this meeting and have a 5 minutes opportunity to address the Committe prior to a decision being made. Once the Council has determined its position, it will advise VCAT. The matter will then be decided at a 10-day hearing that VCAT has set on 12 November 2012.

VCAT will also determine the appeal by Renex regarding the Work Approval that was issued by the EPA. That hearing has been listed for a 5-day hearing from 30 April to 4 May 2012.

Hence, it is VCAT that holds the final decision whether Innova can operate or not.  This will also depend on whether Renex is successful in appealing to VCAT to overturn EPA’s approval for Innova’s facility. The case is not optimistic for Hobsons Bay residents as VCAT had overturned Dandenong Council’s decision not to grant approval to Renex’s facility.

Innova’s assurances on safety standards may not be so convincing and reassuring after all based on the conduct of its proposal:

  • It has shown dishonesty and lack of integrity repetitively in claiming widespread community support, particularly with the use of some ACNCG members to mislead the residents into signing a petition to support its facility.
  • It is of great concern that Innova has strenuously sought to avoid applying for a planning permit from the Council, thinking that it can get away with it under the SU3Z protected status of the Dow Chemical site (Ref 16). This contempt for proper planning process makes us suspect whether it will adhere to strict safety standards in the absence of adequate monitoring under EPA’s policy of greater self-regulation by industries.
  • It has not shown sincerity in wanting genuine consultations with local communities, as seen from the holding of a carefully orchestrated open day only after pressure from the community. On 20 Aug 2009, Innova hosted a so-called independent consultation forum ( onBang the Table” site for residents to voice their concerns. This site is either shelved or has gone into hibernation (Ref 26).

There is an element of how much truth should we believe in what Innova has told us. I hope that VCAT will take into account the above factors when arriving at a decision and not merely rely on technical criteria. Some residents are banking on interference by the Planning Minister Matthew Guy (Ref 27). But let us not pin too much hope on this as we still do not know when the meeting that Mr. Guy has agreed to would take place. Innova has employed the services of professional lobbyists such as Clifton Consulting and FordComm Consulting (Ref 27, 28, 29, 30). This may be one option for Hobsons Bay residents but they probably do not have the deep pockets to do likewise.