Last chance to fight
A SMALL but determined group of residents are making a last-ditch effort to stop toxic CSG waste being stored near water sources just outside Chinchilla.
We Kando, the company operating the Engine Rd waste facility less than 20km from town, received the necessary approvals from the state government and Western Downs Regional Council back in 2014 and 2016.
The approvals allow for toxic CSG waste - the salt and slurry that settles on the base of waste ponds - to be stored at the facility, which neighbours priority agricultural land and is less than 50m from Stockyard Creek, a water course that feeds into the Murray Darling catchment.
The group of residents, known as the Cameby Concerned Citizens Group (CCCG), have been fighting against the approvals for years, and now they're down to their last chance - calling for federal action to their Member for Maranoa and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud.
CCCG, working with Lock the Gate (a national environmental protection alliance) received a report just this July, which was commissioned by the Environmental Defenders Office and completed by University of NSW Professor Stuart Khan.
Prof Khan concluded the project was high risk for water contamination - especially over the life of the facility - which would necessarily stretch into the decades.
That report, alongside one collated by Doctors for the Environment, provided what CCCG member Glen Beasley described as an objective, scientific basis to have the facility evaluated and, ideally, moved away from agriculture and water resources.
Mr Beasley got involved with the CCCG about two years ago. His property is close to the We Kando facility.
"This is his (Mr Littleproud's) opportunity to demonstrate to the electorate that he has learnt from the strawberry contamination scandal, that he does take biosecurity seriously, because the biosecurity and human health issues if and when this goes wrong will be of a national scale,” Mr Beasley said.
He said he thought if Mr Littleproud did not act it rendered him "little better than an environmental vandal”.
Mr Beasley said the CCCG believed the approvals process for the facility was "deeply flawed” after the state department responsible for considering the project - the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection - approved its environmental authority years ago.
Mr Beasley said the approval was given despite the facility's proximity to prioritised agricultural land, water resources, and the department's own assessment of the project which found it had high risks of releasing contaminants to water, among other concerns.
"In spite of that they still approved the policy. It's absurd,” he said.
Yet it seems the council at the time did not want the facility, initially rejecting We Kando's application on the basis of environmental concerns. However, during the early stages of engaging with We Kando, the council took third-party advice which recommended the project be classed as a "public utility”.
After the council's initial rejection, We Kando appealed the decision to the Planning and Environment Court.
Mr Beasley said because the project was listed as a "public utility”, the development conditions were less strict under planning schemes created before amalgamation.
Therefore the project adhered to standards, was not "impact assessable”, and the council had little ground to stand on in fighting the appeal.
"It's an anomaly from the old Chinchilla town plan, which was to deal with the town dump, not a multi-million-tonne CSG waste facility,” Mr Beasley said.
"It's a nonsense.”
The We Kando development application was later approved and the company now has all the approvals it needs to begin storage of toxic waste, including CSG slurry and salt.
For years the CCCG have been fighting against the proposal and, having exhausted other options including going to the Queensland Ombudsman, they have one final hope - going to Mr Littleproud.
The CCCG has already tried to garner federal help on the issue, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Under the act, CSG and large coal mining developments need federal approval if they are likely to have a significant impact on a water resource.
We Kando has not referred its facility to the federal government for the assessment and approval.
According to Lock the Gate spokeswoman Carmel Flint, the government has the power to require We Kando to seek approval but has so far refused to use it.
"They've (the Federal Government) just said they've just written to the company and left it to them to decide more or less,” Ms Flint said.
"We think that's a complete cop-out, and it's just hopeless.
"It leaves the community in a terrible position where the government's basically implied that there's an issue by saying 'we've written to the company' but they refused to do anything about it, so we're pretty appalled.”
Federal member for Maranoa and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, said any action would need to be taken under the EPBC Act.
"While I understand the concern with this development by the locals, the reality is unless the EPBC Act is triggered, the Federal Government has no authority in which to impose any will on the state government and local government,” he said.
"It would be unreasonable for anyone to think that myself or any other politician could go outside the constitutional boundaries that are provided in the constitution.
"I've asked Minister Price (the Minister for the Environment) to investigate whether there is a trigger of the EPBC Act, I'm waiting for that advice to come back, but I'm cognisant of the fact that it probably will come back that there is no trigger of the EPBC Act and therefore it would sit within the remit of the state and local planning acts.”
We Kando declined to comment for this story.
WDRC declined to comment for this story.
DES responds to concerns
IN RESPONSE to questions about the approval process and safety of the We Kando waste facility, the Queensland Department of Environment and Science said in a statement:
"The environmental authority imposes specific conditions on We Kando to address the risks of the activity and protect environmental values.
"The Queensland Government takes environmental laws very seriously.
"In addition to the stringent environ- mental authority conditions and the ongoing compliance program, the department also holds Financial Assurance (FA) for the project which is reassessed every three years.
"In Queensland we apply a 'polluter pays' principle when it comes to attributing responsibility for any contamination and its clean up.
"The Queensland Government can also use the Environmental Protection (Chain of Responsibility) Amendment Act 2016 in some circumstances.
"The laws aim to protect the taxpayer and the environment when a company closes without cleaning up and rehabilitating its site of operations.
"DES understands We Kando is receiving osmosis brine and associated waters for treatment, however salt disposal has not yet commenced.”