5 May 2022

Waste company fined $600,000 for leaking solvent into Molonglo River

| James Coleman
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A NSW EPA officer checks pollution levels in the Molonglo River near Queanbeyan.

A NSW EPA officer checks pollution levels in the Molonglo River near Queanbeyan. Photo: NSW EPA Twitter.

National waste management company Cleanaway has been fined more than $600,000 for leaking solvents into the Molonglo River near Queanbeyan almost two years ago.

On two consecutive days in May 2020, a kerosene-based solvent leaked from Cleanaway’s Queanbeyan premises into the stormwater system and flowed into the Molonglo River. The company failed to report it to the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) until several hours later.

The solvent VivaSol 2046 is widely used in the mining industry and for a range of cleaning applications. It is fatal if ingested.

Cleanaway installed multiple lines of pollution control on the river at the time and used sucker trucks to limit the spill to a one-kilometre section of the river.

On-ground assessments at the time revealed the spill did not reach the lower reaches of the Molonglo River or Lake Burley Griffin.

A NSW EPA officer checks pollution levels in the Molonglo River near Queanbeyan.

A NSW EPA officer checks pollution levels in the Molonglo River near Queanbeyan. Photo: NSW EPA.

The matter was presented to the NSW Land and Environment Court as a “serious incident” and “contributed to a prolonged impact and clean up by multiple government agencies in NSW and the ACT” due to the “unnecessary delay in reporting to the EPA”.

“This conviction and fine sends a clear message that all businesses are accountable to the people of NSW when it comes to protecting the environment,” EPA acting CEO Jacqueleine Moore said.

“It’s the duty of all NSW businesses to notify the EPA if their operations threaten or cause harm to the environment.”

READ ALSO ‘Careless and negligent’: EPA takes action against Cleanaway for toxic spill

The penalties include fines of $280,000 and $150,000 for the two water pollution offences, and $187,500 for the failure to notify authorities.

The court also ordered Cleanaway to pay legal and investigation costs of more than $305,000.

In a social media post, Cleanaway confirmed about 2500 litres of solvent entered the river on 14 and 15 May, 2020.

“The incidents caused actual harm to the environment and significant short-term impacts (lasting approximately two months) on macroinvertebrates in the river,” the post reads.

The pollution incidents also sparked a series of unannounced simultaneous inspections of Cleanaway facilities at 27 locations by more than 50 EPA officers in June 2020.

This resulted in EPA taking further regulatory actions, including fining Cleanaway $15,000 for alleged waste storage offences at Rutherford in the NSW Hunter region.

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The maximum penalty for a water pollution offence by a corporation is $1 million; the maximum penalty for failing to notify the EPA of a pollution incident is $2 million. The penalty handed down by Justice Pain was discounted due to Cleanaway’s early guilty plea to all charges.

Notification of a pollution incident must be given to the relevant authority immediately, according to the EPA. Major pollution incidents that present an immediate threat to human health or property should be reported to emergency services by phoning 000.

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