Perth’s drinking water catchment polluted by waste stockpiles
November 6 2017
PERTH’S drinking water catchment has been polluted by waste stockpiles — right under the nose of the State’s environmental watchdog, which was “closely monitoring” activities at the Oakford site, 36km south of the city.
In a highly embarrassing development for the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, groundwater tests have confirmed elevated concentrations of nitrates, heavy metals and even perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
DWER has confirmed the tested area “is partially located within the southern portion of the Jandakot Underground Water Pollution Control Area.”
It insists there’s no risk to public drinking water because the closest Water Corporation bore is more than 5.5 kilometres north of the impacted site and groundwater flow is in another direction.
The episode is the latest bizarre twist in the long running Bio-Organics saga. The regulator has already been castigated for its failure to properly monitor the business in the past.
The business received at least 87 million litres of unauthorised industrial liquid wastes — 76 million litres in 2011-2013 alone. This was tipped onto compost stockpiles and an unknown quantity seeped into the ground. Other liquid waste entered the drain system that led to the Serpentine River.
Bio-Organics had been licenced in 2002 to operate a composting facility, taking green waste only. But to the dismay of neighbouring residents and the local Shire of Serpentine Jarrahdale it grew into a liquid waste dump, with locals complaining of putrid odours, nausea, headaches and burning eyes.
The business had its licence revoked in June 2014, four months after this newspaper fully exposed the situation.
A parliamentary inquiry into the case savaged the regulator’s failings and recommended an adjacent vineyard, also under the control of Bio-Organics, be tested for contaminants. There were concerns the area might have been irrigated with leachate from composting operations in previous years.
And last year stockpiles were moved from the composting area to the vineyard. Locals aired their concerns to DWER about the stockpiles and their suspicions that some kind of business was operating based on the volume of truck movements in and out of the site.
Throughout last year the regulator stated it was “closely monitoring the situation” and conducting regular inspections. The Shire claimed it was advised by DWER that materials at the vineyard were inert and did not contain any contaminants which may cause a risk to the environment.
But the groundwater investigation found otherwise. “The results indicate that leachate from the compost stockpiled at the site has reached shallow groundwater,” DWER stated in a community update last month.
Apart from elevated concentrations of nitrates and metals, it noted that PFAS were also detected. “This is consistent with Bio-Organics’ former acceptance of a variety of liquid wastes, such as sewage, organic sludge and industrial wash water,” it said. PFAS are toxic pollutants that bio-accumulate.
DWER now intends to classify the site as “possibly contaminated — investigation required” by the end of this month.
It said the Water Corporation has been provided with a copy of the vineyard report. Water Corporation general manager of operations Dr Steve Capewell said it had no current plans to access drinking water in the proximity of the vineyard.
Asked whether it took some responsibility for what had happened, a DWER spokesman said: “It may not be possible to definitively identify when, or over what period, the impact at the vineyard occurred or to attribute contamination to specific events.”
“Possible sources include stockpiled compost material, the application of compost or mulch at the site and any historical use of leachate derived from compost manufacturing to irrigate the grapevines,” the spokesman added.
DWER has asked Bio-Organics to carry out further groundwater and soil testing and if it doesn’t comply, it will be served with an Investigation Notice compelling it. Such a notice was issued to the company in October 2014 over alleged contamination of the composting area. The results of that investigation are now the subject of an independent review ordered by Environment Minister Stephen Dawson in September.
Meanwhile, the Shire said it had “reason to believe (the vineyard area) is being used for transport depot activities.” It recently issued a notice to Bio-Organics giving it 60 days to restore it to its previous condition.
The business is also being prosecuted by DWER for alleged non-compliance with a Closure Notice. At a court hearing on Tuesday, the matter was set down for trial in October and November next year.
Bio-Organics has consistently denied causing any pollution. The company didn’t respond to questions this week or last week. Director Ben Avila, who failed to get elected as a Shire councillor at the recent local government elections, said in his campaign material that it was important for him to set the record straight.
He said his business had been totally vindicated by groundwater testing at the composting site. He blamed a small group of antagonists and media misinformation for damage to his company’s reputation.
In previous responses to the newspaper Mr Avila denied undertaking other business activities from the vineyard site.
“The property is continuing to be used as a family-owned organic vineyard and we are in the midst of picking our 2017 vintage,” he said in March.
Environment Minister Stephen Dawson declined to criticise his department.
“Any type of contamination in the environment is undesirable,” he said.
“Based on advice from the Department of Health, substances present in groundwater beneath the vineyard are not a risk to public health.
“The Bio-Organics issue has been ongoing for many years and I am keen to see it resolved.”
Environmental scientist Andre Stass, who has previously done work for the Shire on the issue, said the latest incident beggared belief.
“How was it possible that the department could allow this material to be moved from one impacted site to a neighbouring location, where there is no barrier to the groundwater, and which is located above the Jandakot groundwater protection mound?” He said.
Alan Clarkson of the Serpentine Jarrahdale Residents and Ratepayers Association said residents “felt massively let down – again.”
“We are amazed DWER has allowed this to happen after all that has gone on before,” he said. “We also feel the Minister is soft-pedalling on the issue.”
DWER clarified that several sites within the Jandakot drinking water catchment have been classified under the Contaminated Sites Act.
“One site is classified as contaminated – remediation required. Six sites are classified as possibly contaminated – investigation required. Four sites are classified as remediated for restricted use,” a spokesman said.