'Illegal' chemical stockpiles prompt WorkSafe review of penalties – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

'Illegal' chemical stockpiles prompt WorkSafe review of penalties

Updated January 04, 2019 09:14:41

The Victorian Government has asked WorkSafe to review whether tougher penalties are needed to crack down on people illegally storing chemicals, after the discovery of several stockpiles in Melbourne’s northern suburbs this week.

Key points:

  • The EPA says chemicals discovered in Melbourne’s north would pose a serious risk if they caught fire
  • Attorney-General Jill Hennessy says penalties under the Dangerous Goods Act are lower than those under the Occupational Health and Safety Act
  • An expert on hazardous waste management says the EPA needs more resources to effectively enforce existing regulations

The state’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) this week uncovered “illegal” chemical stockpiles in seven warehouses across Melbourne’s north, which it said were linked to its investigation into last year’s West Footscray warehouse fire.

That fire, which started on August 30, spewed thick black smoke over the city’s western suburbs, sparking health warnings and respiratory complaints from local residents and badly polluting a nearby creek.

The EPA said if the chemicals discovered at four neighbouring sites in Epping and three sites across Campbellfield caught fire, they would pose a similar health and environmental risk to the West Footscray fire.

'Illegal' chemical stockpiles prompt WorkSafe review of penalties - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Video: The West Footscray blaze produced a large amount of thick, black smoke. (ABC News)

Fines, jail terms to be considered

Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said the EPA’s recent discoveries suggested that stronger penalties may be required.

She said penalties under the Dangerous Goods Act — which can be up to $1 million for a corporation — are lower than the penalties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“So I think it’s probably time for us to look at whether that difference is a little bit out of whack.”

“The model around dangerous goods has required a lot of self-disclosure in the past and I think that we are going to have cause at the conclusion of this investigation to have a look at whether or not that’s fit for purpose.”

Currently, individuals who breach the Dangerous Goods Act in circumstances where they ought to have known the public or the environment would be put at risk face a maximum jail term of four years.

Ms Hennessy said that maximum jail term could be increased to five years.

“[The tougher penalties] will be considered as part of our work to strengthen the current system and make it clear that these rogue operators will not be tolerated,” she said.

“I think we’re entering a time where people have a much stronger expectation about good management when it comes to not just public health and environmental health but for those that might be unregistered and unregulated in these industries, they expect an active cop on the beat,” she said.

Government urged to boost enforcement

Trevor Thornton, a lecturer in hazardous waste management at Deakin University, said the regulations covering the storage of chemicals were adequate, but the EPA needed more resources to effectively enforce them.

“They don’t have enough staff to be able to go out and check everything all the time and to continue to check them,” Dr Thornton said.

“They do have the powers to do so, but it’s the resources that are needed to make sure that things are being done correctly.

“The EPA budget has increased over the years … but there’s a lot of industries out there and there’s only so many EPA officers that can police them and inspect them.

“It’s a case of putting into place a strategy, so that if you are generating this waste, you know at some point in time you’re going to be inspected, very similar to how WorkSafe goes around.

“People are worried that the WorkSafe inspector can come past anytime. They need to be worried that an EPA inspector can come past anytime.”

Topics: health, occupational-health-and-safety, safety, environment, environmental-impact, environmental-health, recycling-and-waste-management, vic, epping-3076, campbellfield-3061, melbourne-3000, west-footscray-3012

First posted January 03, 2019 18:42:07

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