Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dump The Dump

How many trucks, laden with hazardous materials, will drive though the town of Sorell?

On a cold, rainy, typical South East Tasmanian winter evening, I went to Bream Creek Showground for a public meeting concerning a proposed Hazardous Waste Dump in Copping. Copping is a small town about 20 kilometres from Sorell, or some 50 kilometres from Hobart. As I drove in the dark and the rain I thought of the many trucks that will soon  be driving up and down these roads carrying loads of dangerous material to a Class 3 dump.

I first become aware of this plan, like most members of the community, on a lazy Saturday afternoon not too long ago when my partner pointed out an article in the Hobart Mercury. This article reported that a hazardous waste dump was to be built in Copping. Being active in the community, we were taken aback as neither of us had heard anything about this. The article quoted our local member Rebecca White as also
being in the dark about the plan. It was natural that a plan thus sprung would generate a strong community response, as no one likes to be treated like the proverbial mushroom. Public meetings were called. It was far easier for me to find out the time and location of the meetings than it was for me to find information about the
consultation process taken by the local Sorell Council.

As can be imagined when a community is treated in such a cavalier way the public meeting held at the Bream Creek Showground on Friday Aug 31 was very well attended. Several hundred locals turned up with
latecomers having to hover in the cold and wet and darkness around the door. The hall was filled to overflowing with concerned locals. Sadly neither the Mayor, nor the Deputy Mayor was able to attend, as the they were interstate. (What would a cynic make of this non appearance?) The Friday night was an good old fashioned bolshie town meeting, with passions running strong. One thing that struck me as significant was the broad demographic range of people attending. Young people, old timers who had lived generations in the district, families with children, all were in attendance. Support for opposing the dump seemed to come from all elements of the community. Which, if the goal is to stop this project, is a very good sign. For the only way to stop this dump is with committed passion and talents of the local community.

There was a strong current of anger within the crowd. The locals were justifiably upset as it appears the local council had done no more than adhered to the strict letter of the law in informing the community about this project. This was implicitly admitted at the meeting when the champions of this plan agreed to 'pause' all work, and allow a month of public comment and submissions. When asked if this would allow the halting of the dump, the response by the Southern Waste CEO Christine Bell was that this was 'not likely' to
happen. Presented with the fait accompli of already issued permits, this was not well received by the crowd.

The council, did the minimum required by law to meet consultation requirements, but did not in any way adhere to the spirit of democracy. Democracy, taken from the Greek, literally means the power of the villages. In this way we can see that democracy is meant to work best on the local level. One of the important features of Attic democracy was the attempt to equalise the power of the towns with that of the villages. Sadly this support for the local people has been sorely missing in this process. A second month of consultation, while admitting that nothing will stop the poisonous 16 wheeler truck from bearing down on the people of Copping and the wider region, is not consultation at all, but rather a safety valve to try to disperse the locals anger. The usual plan is to try to wear down the opponents and allow for concerns to disperse and for enthusiasm of activists to fade. This second round of consultation is no more than a pretence, it is a way to allow for the communities anger to be vented, to allow a box to be ticked and in the end for nothing to change. If consultation can not work properly at the lowest level of democracy, where council members have strong links with the community, what faith can we have in decisions made by our representatives?

A variety of concerns were raised during the meeting about the project and chosen site. The main concern of course was the safety of the site and the types of waste brought into the area. The experts tried to explain away public concerns with soft sounding words of risk mitigation and independent assessments. While the crowd was in agreement with the need to process waste and to do this is a controlled, green manner, this was overruled by the feeling that this was not the right place to build this dump.

It seems to me to be a risk not worth taking to site such a tip so close to rivers and creeks. The site is only some 100 meters or so from a creek which flows into the Carlton River, and less than a kilometer from the Carlton River itself. As Tasmania and Australia in general is known for wild extremes of weather it seemed to me as if  the experts did not have an answer to the logical question of what will happen in the inevitable 100 year flood when the proposed site would be under water for possibly days at a time. This will happen, as
one of the locals told a story about how he saw this very site flooded on several occasions. If Tasmania is to have a clean green economy and 'brand' how would it look to outsiders to have flood water mixed with
heavy chemicals and other sorts of industrial waste flow into the ocean and pollute the growing aquaculture industry.

What is the community to think of the increase in road traffic? As most of the waste for the site will come from Hobart, there are serious concerns about the routes the trucks would have to take. As anyone who has driven this very important tourist route to Port Arthur knows, once past the airport the roads become a thin dual carriageway. Trucks will have to cross the causeway, past a RAMSAR bird sanctuary, over a pair of bridges that are subject to strong cross winds. Bridges where during storms wind whipped waves of the
Orielton Lagoon and the Pitt Water often break across the bridges. From here the trucks will move through the townships of Midway Point, Sorell, Forcett and Copping, passing Lewisham and Dodges Ferry, crossing several creeks and rivers along the way. The trucks will pass schools, playgrounds, shops, churches, community centres, peoples houses. There are many choke points and dangerous sections of road. With the increase of traffic and very little scope, and even less money and will, to widen and strengthen the road network, it surely is a only a question of when, not if a truck accident will happen. Who then will cleanup? If
an accident was to happen on one of the many bottlenecks in the region, any response would be hampered. What would be the effect on brand Tasmania to have a truck roll, spilling dangerous heavy metals across this most important tourist route?

An interesting point was raised during the meeting. Apparently the Copping area is the most earthquake prone spot in all of Tasmania, with a fault line lurking under the proposed dump site. When asked if this was taken into account no one could say for sure that this was modeled, only that they thought it may have been. Another question that was not answered was the question of what alternative sites where investigated. Having been a public servant for over a decade I understand the importance of getting three quotes for any purchase. It seems to me that this rule should have been adhered to in this situation.

A member of the audience raised the very sensible question of why should this community pay for the sins of industry? Why should profits be privately appropriated, while losses and costs must be borne by the
community? Surely if the owners of the zinc works think this is such a grand plan, they should be only too happy to pay for their own waste management. And if it is so safe why not site the dump on their own

From a purely selfish point of view, as small business owners, how will attendance to our bookshop will be effected if the worst happens and a truck does roll in the town of Sorell? Would customers, and tourists not be scared off for weeks or months? I often take my small children to the local beaches, can I be sure that there will be no pollution in the water? What of the many local organic farms in the region? Any contamination of these farms would be a catastrophe to these businesses.

While not being able speak for the organising committee, it seems to me that the only proper course of action for the various levels of government and Southern Waste is to scrap the process, to cancel the permits and start over again from square one. Only this time our elected officials should follow process, including proper consultation.

During the recent tsunami in Japan, I was struck by a report I heard. Sea walls were built to a height of some eleven meters, this was to defend against tidal waves. The sea walls failed, even though the waves were only ten meters tall. The power of the earthquake was such that the land around the sea wall subsided over a meter, allowing the water to rush over the top and flood the town. This to me showed something very important, nature is immense and humans are puny. Have we not learned our lessons? Do we need to keep making the same arrogant mistakes over and over again? It seems with the Copping dump projects our experts have not learned and refuse to learn.

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