Speech on waste management in NSW

In Parliament | 10.08.17

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (15:41): On Monday night the people of New South Wales were left in shock. They discovered that they had been let down by a system and services they trust to do the right thing and to protect the community and the environment from harm. Waste and recycling are not usually topics that get the blood pumping or set talkback telephone lines ablaze, but this week they did. This week we learnt that the waste system in New South Wales is broken. The revelations from this week's Four Corners program have led to a range of searching questions about how we as a community deal with the outcomes of the lives we lead and the materials we produce, use and dispose of every day. The most serious questions have been raised about trust—trust in our services, trust in government and trust in ourselves to look after the environment, as we know we must. We are being forced to ask hard questions about the role of government and regulation and the important role we delegate to the NSW Environment Protection Authority [EPA]. Many of these issues are not entirely new. We need to look at how we got to this week's eye-opening news when it comes to waste and recycling.

In June 2014 the then shadow Minister for the Environment, Luke Foley, moved to establish an upper House parliamentary inquiry into the workings of the NSW Environment Protection Authority. The aim of the inquiry was to look at how the EPA performs against its legislated objectives and, specifically, the way in which it dealt with a range of specific cases. The regrettable government response supported just seven of the inquiry's 17 recommendations. I note, however, that even the Government members did not make a dissenting report in relation to the committee—the Government just threw them under the bus.

One particular example was the recommendation for separation of the chairperson of the EPA board from the role of chief executive officer of the EPA. This still awaits action from the Government. This simple change would significantly enhance the accountability of the EPA at the highest executive level, yet two years later nothing has changed. Since that time, the EPA has been caught out very publicly failing to carry out its responsibilities in the effective and timely manner that is expected by the community. There have been three major failures we need to talk about today, not for any "gotcha" moment but because we need to fix this system and fix it quickly.

In September 2015, to the horror of residents in Williamtown and surrounding areas, the EPA sent out a notice advising people not to drink bore water and not to eat fish caught in the nearby area or eggs from backyard chickens due to legacy firefighting chemicals found in some surface water, groundwater and fish. We know that since then it has been a rollercoaster ride of stress and anxiety for many local residents and a range of local industries. So it was with great shock that a government review of the EPA's actions in this case found that the EPA had in fact known about the contamination at Williamtown since 2013 and, less directly, some years earlier. Former Minister Mark Speakman was forced to order a review into his own agency's mishandling of the contamination of Williamtown.

The second case occurred just weeks ago when it was revealed that at least 185 households across Sydney may have been exposed to asbestos by living on or near former James Hardie disposal sites that government agencies had known about for at least a decade. It was further shown that the EPA was keeping information about other contamination hidden from the public to protect residential property prices. And then we come to this week, when several critical pieces of information became public on Monday night, including the fact that in some cases 50 per cent of recycled materials is not being recycled and may be ending up in landfill or stockpiled interstate, and that illegal dumping is rampant. In one case the EPA knew it was happening for two years before acting on allegations that 20,000 tonnes of asbestos-ridden landfill was dumped into endangered mangroves on the Hawkesbury River.

We also found out that unsuitable sites like the Mangrove Mountain Landfill are set to expand and put at risk the water catchment on the Central Coast. We also found out that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of New South Wales waste is being trucked to Queensland, costing New South Wales more than $100 million a year in waste levies. The case of the Mangrove Mountain Landfill is a case of a broken system. This landfill began life as a small amount of clean landfill—80,000 tonnes to fix a golf course. It is now 10 times the size, with an approval for another 1.3 million tonnes of fill, right on top of the water catchment for the Central Coast.

Four Corners revealed that it is not only the EPA that has failed in its duty to protect the community. There are serious flaws and possible corruption at the old Gosford City Council and possibly at the current Central Coast Council. The EPA failed Mangrove Mountain when it kept giving out licences without following up on the conditions of the previous licences. Meanwhile, Gosford City Council dumped its own waste and failed to investigate ongoing breaches. While the EPA has been quick to refer itself to ICAC, I indicate that the Opposition will also be referring Gosford City Council and Central Coast Council to ICAC, because their role in this debacle cannot be ignored any further. I also call on the Government to put in place a special commission of inquiry into all aspects of what has been allowed to happen at Mangrove Mountain, with a proper analysis of the impact of the future use of this site for landfill.

HANSARD - NSW Legislative Council, 10 August 2017