Sweeping reforms to Victoria’s EPA are set to shift its focus from response to prevention, and restore the faith of communities at risk from contaminants. By Chris Woods.

Cleaning up the Environmental Protection Authority

Tucked around the corner from what remains of the historic Wunderlich factory in Melbourne’s Sunshine North, the residents of Barwon Avenue have lived with the threat of asbestos for most of their lives. Wunderlich, CSR and James Hardie each took turns running the factory during its 55-year history, before it officially closed in 1983. As a manufacturer of asbestos cement roofing and wall-siding, it was partially capped in 1985. But it was not until a change of land use in 1998 that a full-scale environmental audit was triggered.

While Deby Sammut-Brown, Paul Pascoe and Gary Muir have all lived near the site for decades, they remained uninformed about the presence of asbestos within their homes and behind the factory until 2014. 

Three years after a newspaper report revealed that 16 community members had died from asbestos-related diseases in the decades following the factory’s closure, the three have learnt to live with uncertainty. 

“It’s always in the back of your mind, but you try not to think about it and get on with life,” Pascoe says. He says that, on finding out that his ceilings contained asbestos residue from the factory, “my thoughts were, straight away, ‘That’s how I’m going to die, I’m going to die from asbestos.’ ” 

Muir, who played in mountains of residue behind the factory during its heyday, is already living with asbestosis, an inflammation of the lungs, which to his knowledge is currently benign. His brother, Leamont, died from the disease in December 2013.

And with mesothelioma and lung cancer taking up to 35 years or more to produce symptoms, even the healthiest members of the community will never properly be free of the threat. 

Adding to the residents’ uncertainty is the fact they were given contradictory advice during the 2014 investigations. While both the Environmental Protection Authority and independent industrial hygienist Michael Kottek agreed that the current risk of airborne asbestos in the area was negligible, their use of different detection methods for the dust itself provided conflicting results as to the presence of respirable fibres. 

“I still don’t think it’s a big risk, I don’t think people should be overly panicking, but I still think the state of Victoria woefully underplayed the significance of that dust,” Kottek says. “They basically told people they can just ignore it completely, which I just think is reckless, and no one would get away with that approach in an occupational context.”

That could change, though, with major reforms to the Environmental Protection Authority under way.

As the agency responsible for auditing the area when Westend bought the site in 1995, the EPA endured widespread criticism for not previously informing residents of their risk to asbestos as well as for the historical delays in capping the entire factory area.

“I’d like to go on to say that we worked hard at Wunderlich,” the agency’s chief executive officer, Nial Finegan, says. “My staff sat down with community members in their homes, and we gave individual advice to people about the actual risk.” 

Key to this case is communication: the lack of communication with residents before the investigation; and the conflicting advice given to them during the media blow-up, which is still, understandably, a continuing source of anxiety.

While there’s little the EPA can do about the historic neglect or even the proliferation of mixed messages, particularly with Kottek currently pursuing the matter with freedom of information requests for EPA’s testing results and Melbourne Water’s handling of asbestos in the nearby Stony Creek, an ongoing overhaul of the authority could go towards securing residents some future sense of certainty. Or at the very least, help avoid a similar situation occurring.

Officially announced on January 18, the reforms were kickstarted by the Labor Party’s election promise of a 10-month, independent inquiry into the EPA. With new prosecution powers, a cultural shift from responding to harm towards enforcing a general preventive duty, and funding of $45.5 million during the next 18 months, they are set to be the most extensive and well-funded in the office’s 47-year history. 

The reforms touch on everything from rehabilitation bonds for declared mines to the EPA’s potential to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, although Finegan argues that the most important elements include the introduction of an interim board, the appointment of a new chief environmental scientist, and the transfer of a public health function from the Department of Health and Human Services to the EPA.

This public health function was sorely missing during the authority’s early handling of Sunshine North, and the EPA will adopt at least two features that, in all likelihood, would have drastically affected the case: $2.4 million towards a publicly accessible database of Victoria’s contaminated sites, and $4.8 million to pilot a program of local government environment protection officers across 10 councils.

According to Slater and Gordon asbestos lawyer Margaret Kent, who has represented a number of Sunshine North clients, a Victorian database of contaminated sites is long overdue. 

While Kent believes Sunshine North’s major issue is now historical exposure, she advocates for the remediation of identifiable asbestos sites in the western suburbs, such as raw asbestos in alleyways and a popular park built on asbestos waste. She also points to Geelong’s abandoned Alcoa and car manufacturer sites for major and ongoing examples of asbestos pollution.

But with about one in three Australian homes housing the material, Kent says a full-scale clean-up would be both logistically impossible and potentially dangerous. Instead, she stresses management over wholesale removal, and believes the database could prove vital for town planning in areas such as Yarraville, where the government will build a new suburb next to the Bradmill factory, an “enormous asbestos dump that I have no reason to believe … has ever been addressed”. 

As Kent puts it: “People forget, people lose whole cities in the mists of history. You need to know that, under that building, will be a huge pile of asbestos.”

The creation of a local environmental health officer was similarly lauded by Kent and groups such as Environmental Justice Australia for bridging a gap between the EPA and local councils, with the most prominent critic of the new officers being the Australian Industry Group.

Victorian director Tim Piper only had two complaints with the reforms, the second being the empowerment of third-party “obstructionist” groups. He does “not see the value, for the EPA, for businesses, or even for consumers, of altering the power base”.

With Environmental Justice Australia calling for more third-party rights, it remains to be seen just how the reforms affect Victoria’s legislative landscape. Nial Finegan, however, lauds the fact that the multi-year reform will at least provide clarity to the EPA’s often disparate role and powers.

“There’s a big section in the inquiry that says, ‘EPA deals with everything from a cigarette butt to a Hazelwood [coalmine] fire,’ ” Finegan says. “The expectation [was] so big and so broad, and the organisation is so finite, the EPA can only ever disappoint.”

As for Sunshine North residents, barring a full-scale clean-up, they deserve certainty that their environment is safe. For its efforts, the EPA has seemingly done what it can to create certainty, although it has not contextualised Kottek’s research in sufficient detail.

While there’s little chance of restoring absolute confidence at this point, if the database does a thorough enough job of collating disparate information, such as the Wunderlich reports, currently listed on a broken Brimbank City Council page, and local health officers are given the time to properly contextualise information, even Kottek’s conflicting results, it’s not impossible to see residents receiving some sense of closure from these reforms.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 11, 2017 as "Cleaning up the EPA".

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Chris Woods is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.

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