The clean-up efforts at SKM Recycling plant in Coolaroo have now concluded after more than 30,000 tonnes of fire-impacted waste was removed as required by an Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) notice.

The fire broke out in Maffra Street, Coolaroo, on 13 July.

At the height of the fire, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) had about 50 appliances and 140 firefighters on scene working with emergency service partners.

Over the three-week period, about 600 firefighters battled the blaze, 24-hours a day.

It is estimated that 140 million litres of contaminated water were pumped out of the nearby Merlynston Creek in Jack Roper Reserve and directed to the sewer system by Melbourne Water.

Waste removal

EPA CEO Nial Finegan said most of the waste went to an EPA-licensed landfill in Bulla as it was, unfortunately, no longer recyclable because of contamination caused by fire and water used to extinguish it.

“Smaller quantities were also taken to landfills in Wollert and Ravenhall; EPA officers inspected waste disposal activities at these sites to ensure compliance with the Environment Protection Act 1970,” Mr Finegan said.

Mr Finegan said EPA officers inspected the Coolaroo site on Tuesday 19 September to confirm all fire-impacted waste had been removed as required by the EPA notice.

“EPA officers on the ground also confirmed that contaminated water held on the site from fire-fighting efforts had been taken from the premises to an appropriate facility,” Mr Finegan said.

Mr Finegan said the company, not the EPA or the community, was responsible for the cost of removing the waste.

EPA continues to work with Melbourne Water, Yarra Valley Water, Hume City Council, and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to manage the waterways affected by the fire at the SKM Coolaroo premises.

Firefighters to the fore

The firefighting efforts at Coolaroo were led by the MFB with crews from the Country Fire Authority (CFA), the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and New South Wales all lending a hand.

MFB Acting Chief Officer Greg Leach said MFB contributed significant resources to the incident and remained involved throughout the relief and recovery process.

“It was a large, complex and protracted incident and our crews worked extremely hard to bring the fire under control and stop it from spreading,” Acting Chief Officer Leach said.

Victorian Government Resource Recovery Audit Taskforce update

Following the Coolaroo fire a joint Victorian Government Resource Recovery Audit Taskforce was set up to target key recycling sites that required extra management measures to ensure community safety.

The taskforce, chaired by EPA CEO Nial Finegan, comprises EPA, MFB, CFA, Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

The taskforce is currently auditing recycling facilities across Victoria to identify and prioritise sites that require action to better protect the community.

To assist the taskforce, the Victorian Government also established an interim Waste Management Policy (WMP) to improve safety standards at Victorian waste and resource recovery facilities.

Mr Finegan said the policy applies to operators of sites that store combustible recyclable and waste material.

“It gives the EPA additional powers to support local government and Victoria’s fire services and issue remedial notices to facilities not properly managing potential fire risks. It also requires facilities to store materials in a manner that reduces risk to human health,” Mr Finegan said.

To date there have been 40 inspections conducted at sites across Victoria (some sites have had multiple inspections) by the taskforce. A second round of inspections will occur throughout October and November.

Mr Finegan said notices have been issued to several sites in Victoria with more expected to be issued in the coming months to multiple sites.

“SKM received two notices requiring interim waste management plans for the company’s Laverton and Hallam sites. These have now been complied with but further notices are being prepared,” he said.

Polytrade in Campbellfield has also received a notice that requires it to store and manage combustible recyclable and waste materials at the premises in a manner that minimises risks of fire.

Further EPA powers arrive

The Victorian Government has strengthened the EPA to meet Victoria’s needs now and in the future.

On Tuesday 17 October, the Environment Protection Bill 2017 (the Bill) to clarify EPA's role and strengthen its governance passed the Upper House and will now go to the Governor for Royal Assent, making it law.

The Bill establishes EPA as a statutory authority and legislates the role of the Board, CEO and Chief Environmental Scientist. It also provides greater clarity on EPA's role as an environmental public health regulator

The Victorian Government will propose further reforms to overhaul the Environment Protection Act 1970 next year. The cornerstone of the new legislation will be a general preventative duty to minimise risk of harm to human health and the environment.

Reviewed 26 October 2020