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Government neglect of recycling industry behind toxic blaze, say experts

Recycling experts have slammed the state government and the Environment Protection Authority for allowing the massive stockpiling of plastic, cardboard and paper at a Coolaroo plant, as fire investigators attempt to identify the cause of the toxic blaze.

The fourth fire this year at the facility owned by SKM Recycling forced more than 100 residents to evacuate their homes as acrid smoke continued to affect air quality in Melbourne north-western suburbs over the weekend.

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The Coolaroo fire issued an acrid pall of smoke.

The Coolaroo fire issued an acrid pall of smoke. Photo: Justin McManus

Victoria invests a fraction of what other states spend on recycling and waste management, according to Australian Council of Recycling chief executive, Grant Musgrove, who branded the government's neglect of the sector: a "bloody disgrace".

"Successive Victorian governments have repeatedly failed to invest in recycling. It's appalling that companies are allowed to stockpile these materials while they (the government) continue to prop up their budget with half-a-billion dollars from landfill levy revenue", Mr Musgrove said.

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He said a similar fire would never have occurred in NSW or South Australia, where companies face stiff fines for stockpiling potentially flammable materials.

Mr Musgrove warned other facilities across the state could be potential fire and environmental risks because of inadequate regulations and weak enforcement.

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According to other industry sources, the stockpiling of flammable materials at Melbourne recycling plants has been exacerbated by a recent Chinese government initiative to stem plastic imports for recycling.

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In February 2017, China's General Administration of Customs announced the launch of a one-year campaign to target "foreign waste," including plastics, industrial waste, electronics and other household waste materials.

Until recently, Victorian recycling businesses, including SKM Recycling, had exported a significant quantity of plastic and other materials to China.

On Saturday, Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio announced a joint taskforce to audit the recycling industry in a bid to quell community anger over the most recent fire at the SKM Recycling plant.

"Nothing is more important than community safety, and that is why our emergency services will play a key role in the taskforce," Ms D'Ambrosio said.

"There's a lot of questions that have been asked, quite rightly, a lot of answers that do need to be provided to the community," she said.

The Coolaroo fire was brought under control on Saturday morning, but continues to smolder.

The EPA was due to inspect the facility last Thursday, before the blaze broke out.

Another plant owned by SKM Recycling in Laverton North was visited by the EPA last Friday, amid concerns of potential environmental damage and a build up of flammable recycling bales.

The EPA discovered a "backlog of unsorted waste" and served SKM three notices, including demands for a temporary sorting line to clear the build-up.

The company is now required to provide the EPA with details of waste volumes it has accepted, processed and sold at Laverton North, and to verify claims it has made about market demand for sorted recycling materials.

The EPA has also demanded safety measures be installed to protect stormwater from runoff from unwashed rubbish.

Ms D'Ambrosio said the company could continue to receive waste if it was in accordance with the EPA notices and its planning permit.

Other SKM facilities in Hallam and Geelong are expected to be visited by EPA officers this week.

On Sunday, Premier Daniel Andrews disputed that the government has been slow to act over the fire.

"There will be a property investigation, a proper review, into what has occurred there – and I will let that run its course and deal with the facts," he said.

Mr Andrews said a dozen facilities would be audited across the state.

"I think you'll see better developed risk management plans, better understanding of the risks, and an ability to respond better in the event that there are issues, and try and get out in front of those issues before there are fires or other problems."

With Alexandra Laskie

Original Article

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