Consultation--doing more than the bare minimum
Citation: This article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Consultation--doing more than the bare minimum', Engineers Australia, April 2000, p. 66.
This is a final version submitted for publication.
Developers and government authorities who fail to consult with the public about intended projects are likely to generate distrust and ill-feeling in the community. This requires doing more than advertising and exhibiting an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement).
In 1998 the Wollongong Council received a development application for a waste treatment facility. It advertised and exhibited the EIS and considered its duty to consult the public had been fulfilled. The approval was granted. Two years later the community feels cheated of its opportunity for input into the decision.
The EIS described a facility that would receive, process and recycle liquid wastes and sludges. The great bulk of this waste (84%) would be wastes from steel making and metal manufacturing and processing (10,600 t/a) and other manufacturing, processing and mining wastes (9,500 t/a). After treatment the end products would be either recycled, reused or sent to landfill or sewer.
According to the Council wastes to be treated at the proposed facility will mainly be generated in the Illawarra but also Sydney and Newcastle. This waste is currently treated at the Lidcombe Liquid Waste Treatment Plant because it is too hazardous for landfill or sewer disposal.
The EIS did not describe exactly how the new plant would treat these wastes, referring in a few places to "proprietary technologies". Nor did it detail what hazardous wastes were likely to be accepted or produced at the facility. Both these omissions were noted by the EPA which stated: "It is apparent to the EPA that any proposed waste fixation process cannot be fully tested prior to the plant becoming operational." These omissions did not prevent the Council granting development approval to the facility.
Early in 1999 the applicant wrote to the Council, to find out if their development approval would cover the treatment of contaminated soil from industrial sites, service stations and fuel depots. The Council said it would.
The facility is now to have a storage capacity of 10,000 tonnes of contaminated soil and a throughput of 2,000 tonnes per day "dependent upon the treatment required for the specific contaminant". Wastes such as TPH's and PAH's will be treated with a mobile catalytic chemical oxidation process and heavy metals will be fixed using chemical processes.
In December 1999 the EPA licensed the treatment of contaminated soils and "nonliquid industrial residues and process wastes and soil like materials" at the facility. (No license has yet been issued for the liquid waste treatment proposed in the EIS.) The EPA license does not require any monitoring of discharges to the air or water, only an annual monitoring of soils and groundwater for contamination.
Local residents did not become aware of the proposed facility till last month, shortly before construction was due to begin. When the Wollongong Advertiser published a front page article entitled "Toxic soil dump in city &endash; and who cares?" residents became angry at what seemed to them to be an attempt to sneak this facility into their neighbourhood.
The group IRATE (Illawarra residents Against Toxic Emissions) accused the Council of secrecy. IRATE chair David Gilmour pointed out that he sat on many committees as a community representative and he had never heard the facility mentioned. Councillor Vicky King who chairs the Illawarra Waste Management Committee also said she had been told nothing of the facility.
The Mayor, George Harrison, told the Advertiser: "The environment watchdogs obviously are not as vigilant as they make out to the community because they missed two separate advertisements in the newspaper." He pointed out that letters had been sent to neighbouring businesses and there had not been one objection: "What more do we have to do to inform people of the Illawarra?", he asked.
But the advertisements for the EIS and letters to neighouring businesses merely described a Waste Recycling Facility and gave no indication of the sorts of wastes that were to be dealt with. The EIS itself did not mention contaminated soils or provide sufficient details of the facilities operations.
The council may have complied with the minimum legal requirements by posting advertisements but clearly neither the council nor the developer engaged in the level of public consultation that is expected these days for approval of hazardous waste facilities. Such token consultation clearly does nothing to win community confidence in such facilities.