This is my second report on Bingo Industries’ odours being emitted from its Eastern Creek landfill. My first report can be found here.
Yesterday evening, residents in Minchinbury and nearby areas in Sydney’s west were enveloped by a smell that has been drifting their way from Bingo’s Industries Eastern Creek landfill for the last eight weeks. Some shut their windows but found the foul air was already inside. Some couldn’t sleep, others eventually went to sleep, only to wake with headaches or breathing difficulties.
Sometimes the smell just hangs in the air, and for many hours at a time the odour can be overwhelming. Residents have felt forced to cancel social occasions or their guests have gone home, unable to deal with the smell. If you run a business from home, you can’t be confident in inviting clients to visit you. An 80 year old woman who regularly spent hours gardening has developed asthma and has been forced to stay indoors in recent weeks.
Nearly everyone agrees that this is not the first time that they have smelled these odours. They were there earlier last year too. But after the last two months, they are now desperate to get rid of them for good.
Photo taken of small section of Eastern Creek Landfill before the licence variation.
For weeks, Bingo tried to evade responsibility and kept communication with the community to a minimum. But Blacktown Council, followed by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), resolved that Bingo’s huge landfill was clearly the source of the problem.
On April 23 the NSW EPA issued a Clean-Up notice, but the deadline passed and the odours continued. ( See my previous report ) The EPA has powers to take action against companies that fail to comply with Clean-Up notices. It did so with CPB contractors in 2019, fining the Westconnex builders nearly $500,000. The EPA also has the power to shut down the site, but so far it has neither prosecuted Bingo nor closed its site down.
The EPA’s failure to take action to penalise Bingo has not impressed local MPs or residents.
Local MP and Federal Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen and NSW Labor MP for Mount Druitt Edmond Atalla grabbed public attention when they published a video calling for the landfill to be shut down until the problem is solved.
NSW Parliamentary Action
On May 11th Atalla moved a notice of motion in NSW Parliament calling on the EPA to act more decisively.
On the same day, the ABC mistakenly reported that Bingo had been fined $577 for failing to comply with the clean-up notice. This was quickly corrected to make it clear that this was only an administrative fee.
Atalla told parliament, “That makes the EPA’s position much worse, as to date no infringements have been issued by the EPA. Whether it is an infringement or an admin fee, it demonstrates weak action by the EPA. I am calling on the EPA to stop pandering with bandaid, short-term solutions and commence legal action in the Land and Environment Court. The EPA should immediately shut down Bingo Industries’ operations at Eastern Creek until such time as a permanent solution with a defined time frame is agreed upon.”
It is not clear when Atalla’s motion will be debated because NSW parliament sits on few days each year. It will sit for six days in June and August and not at all in July.
Greens MP Jenny Leong also asked the Minister for Environment Matt Kean questions on notice including a request for information on how many audits and inspections have been conducted on the Bingo site and why the EPA CEO Tracy Mackey chose “to be featured in photos with Bingo executives and Board members including Ian Malouf, whom the EPA has previously prosecuted for waste licence breaches, at a time when many thousands of residents had been and were being exposed to foul odours from Bingo Industries?” (I will post the answers to Leong’s questions when they are posted on the Parliamentary website.)
Why hasn’t Bingo been fined?
Atalla told 2GB on May 13th that the EPA’s actions were “just a band aid. The EPA has not taken any harsh action or taken any infringements. The only way we’re going to resolve the issue is to stop taking waste,” Fordham agreed.
The following day, Atalla and the Mayor of Blacktown Mayor Tony Bleasdale met with staff who work with the Minister for Environment Matt Kean and EPA staff. (The Minister was not available.) They tabled a list of fines imposed by the EPA on smaller companies and demanded to know why Bingo had been permitted to inflict so much environmental harm without being penalised or prosecuted.
A briefing note prepared by the EPA after the meeting given to Mr Atalla reassures him that the EPA is treating the issue as a “top priority”. Atalla was also told that the “door is not shut” to prosecution. EPA CEO Tracy Mackey was quoted as saying that the EPA would hold Bingo to account.
The EPA did issue a notice asking Bingo why it should not be shut down. After a confidential meeting with Bingo, which Blacktown Council was not allowed to attend, the EPA has temporarily imposed new conditions on the licence under which Bingo operates. The new restrictions cut back on the amount of waste that can be received by the landfill and limit the amount of land that can be actively used to dump waste. All exposed waste must be covered with 300 millimetres of virgin soil rather than a spray called Concare, an alternative cheaper method that Bingo prefers.
Licence variation - a temporary win but odours continue
This ‘licence variation’ is a win for residents because it limits Bingo’s income-earning activities and has propelled them to urgently take action. According to Bingo spokesperson Chris Gordon, the company has already spent $1.5 million on the problem. Up until today however, the odours are as bad as ever.
The updated licence states that restrictions will stay in place until the ‘reference date’ is reached - which is the day on which a system of 27 pipes to extract and burn gas will become operational and an up-to-date Air Quality Management Plan has been approved.
The community were told that the gas system would begin to operate yesterday but now they have been told it will begin operating this coming weekend.
Bingo says that it is working hard to meet these conditions. In response to questions, it told me that “the initial gas flare was operational on Monday 17 May, and it is expected to be fully operational by the end of this week.”
Until the gas system is working no one knows whether it will stop the odours temporarily - let alone for good.
None of this would have happened without action and hundreds of complaints from the community.
On Sunday, the Minchinbury community organised a rally which was addressed by two local MPs, the Mayor of Blacktown Tony Bleasdale and Councillors.
MP Edmond Atalla addressing the meeting
Atalla updated the community on the Friday meeting with the Minister’s staff and EPA. (See above) He told residents that he had raised the issue of the ex-head of the EPA Barry Buffier) being on the Bingo Board, “ I said that’s not a good look. The residents don’t have any faith in the EPA …they haven’t taken any harsh action as a result of the relationship between the EPA and Bingo. They have assured me that this is not the case.”
“EPA is not issuing an infringement but they have left that door open. They didn’t shut it out. They did say they forced Bingo to install gas extraction equipment valued at $1 million,” he told the rally.
“If there are further odours (after the gas plant begins operation), we will continue calling for Bingo to be shut down.”
In his speech, the Blacktown Mayor Tony Bleasdale talked about the bigger picture in which the waste industry is being monopolised by groups like “Macquarie, Bingo and Suez … There is money in muck and they are walking away with billions of dollars at the expense of not putting in place the appropriate infrastructure …. If it was in Vaucluse it would haven’t happened. I can tell you that now. The mentality is ‘dump it in the West’. He called the EPA’s administration of the licence as a case of “massive mismanagement” and concluded, “Western Sydney has had enough of this sort of activity. It’s not acceptable.”
Chris Bowen told the rally that he too had been invited to the Bingo ribbon-cutting rally but chose not to go. He read from an email he received from Bingo CEO Daniel Tartak. “The email said it’s all down to the rain and March events and there is not much we can do, we are doing our best.”
Bowen then read his reply:
“Dear Daniel, Thank you for your email. However I must advise that it is my very strong view that Bingo has done nowhere near enough to mitigate this issue. Given the scale of the disruption and distress caused to the community I represent, the actions by Bingo have fallen well short of my expectations. I think that you and Bingo management have simply failed to recognise the scale of distress caused. There has been little outreach to the community and none to me. I understand that Bingo undertook to the EPA to take further action on Friday.This action should not have been taken on pain of the EPA order to shut you down. This should have been done weeks ago. The fact that Bingo undertook a ribbon-cutting ceremony while the community was suffering this terrible odour frankly smacked of self- congratulations while the community suffered. Bingo has a long way to go before it comes anywhere near to restoring the confidence of the community. I will continue advocating for my community, including advocating for your facility to be shut down unless the situation improves dramatically and urgently,
Yours faithfully, Chris Bowen
He (Tartak) replied, “We (Bingo) accept that we didn’t get it it right and we should have done more to communicate with the community” but [_Bowen continued] that with respect misses the point. It’s about fixing the problem. I don’t accept that because we had a lot of rain in March that this should cause you to put up with smells for weeks and weeks and months afterwards. If the Facility is not designed for a lot of rain, then the Facility is not properly designed and should not be able to operate. It’s as simple as that._”
Liberal Councillor Linda Santos also called for the landfill to be shut down and shifted elsewhere if the odours are not stopped permanently.
Minchinbury and other suburbs were established in Western Sydney long before the nearby old quarry was allowed to turn into a waste dump. A new neighbourhood group Envirowatch ( Michinbury and Surrounds distributed a leaflet headed ‘Everyone deserves the right to breathe clean air!’ urging the community to keep up the pressure.
The EPA now knows that they are under huge pressure to finally stop the odours. The EPA does have the power to shut Bingo down but this could mean that Bingo would almost certainly take the EPA to court. But as Bowen said, “at least you [EPA] go down trying.”
Bingo is currently under a $2.3 billion takeover offer from the Macquarie Group (MIRA). In response to a question about whether MIRA had raised concerns, Gordon stated, “We continue to keep MIRA apprised of the situation at Eastern Creek, and they are aware of the extensive actions we are taking to address the issue as expeditiously as possible.”
If Bingo fails to fix the odours, it can expect more than a Sunday afternoon rally.
Why is the gas system necessary?
Bingo Industries Eastern Creek holds an EPA licence which prohibits it from emitting odours.
The company is not licensed to accept organic or putrescible waste, which is well known to emit odours.
The landfill is designed to accept only construction and demolition waste, asbestos and other non-organic materials that cannot be recycled.
However, it is clear that the company has been accepting sufficient organic waste to generate the odours.
The company is blaming the rains, but as Bowen said, the landfill should be operated in a way that can deal with intense rain. Flood waste may be contributing and that has now been stopped.
Landfills that accept organic waste do have pipe systems that extract the gases produced during decomposition. If Bingo was licensed to accept organic waste, it should have already been required to have one.
Community Environmental Research Director and environmental scientist Charlie Pierce explained how the gas flare should work to reduce the odours:
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is created when hydrogen sulphide (H2S) is flared at the appropriate temperature. SO2 is less toxic and creates a lower loss of amenity when compared to H2S. The flare will also burn excess methane reducing the risk of methane escape and explosion at a landfill. Generation of toxic gases and other pollutants are common issues with all landfills. Hence, that is one of the reasons why they should be sited away from human habitation, properly engineered and managed by competent individuals. It’s too bad that the landfill was sited too close to houses, that Bingo is an incompetent manager and the EPA doesn’t take its regulatory role seriously.
One problem may be that Bingo has been dumping MWOO (Mixed Waste Organic Outputs) on the landfill. The Licence Variation notice has stopped Bingo from accepting this waste.
MWOO is the end-product of a practice which aims to separate the organic waste in household red-lid bins from other waste. It’s a difficult process that may still end up with a mixture including organic waste.
Charlie Pierce has asked the EPA to explain the circumstances under which Bingo has been dumping MWOO.
In response to a question, Bingo said that MWOO is classified as “non-putrescible General Solid Waste (GSW)”, which the facility has been licensed to accept since it began operating. It insists that it only accepts MWOO that is certified as GSW and then only in very small amounts. In accordance with the new Licence Variation, it is no longer accepting this waste.
This MWOO issue is a tricky issue in the waste industry that needs further investigating.
We do know, however, that the EPA has required the gas flare to stop the smell from the breakdown of organic matter. We don’t yet know why so much organic matter is in the landfill or where it came from.
Bingo continues to deny full responsibility
Even now, Bingo is not accepting full responsibility for the odours, although it acknowledges that it has contributed to the problem. Gordon described it as “isolated” and “point-in-time”and denied that there had previously been any verified complaints against Bingo.
In response to questions, he replied,
BINGO is acutely aware of the impact odour can have on the local community, and we take full responsibility for any odour emanating from our site. We are not, however, prepared to take responsibility for odours emanating for other facilities. There are a significant number of potential sources of odour in this area, including other landfills, waste transfer stations, food manufacturers, composting facilities, bitumen producers, and major sewer lines. Indeed, many of the more recent complaints from residents have referred to a sewage-type smell and the smell of dirty nappies. This is not consistent with the recent odour on our site and indicates that there may be other odour sources at play. We are taking every step possible to manage the odour on our site and we are confident this will be brought under control as expeditiously as possible.
Bingo and the NSW EPA should publish a full account of all monitoring data and a full investigation report.
I have asked the NSW EPA questions. I expect to receive answers soon. These are relevant to the issues about MWOO waste and other important issues that need further investigation. When I get these answers, I will publish more material, including the results of a 2019 audit of the site and unanswered questions about a fire on the site that caused distressing health impacts last year.
I will also soon publish an update on the public presentations at Dial-a-Dump’s appeal against the Independent Planning Commission’s refusal of approval for them to build an Waste to Energy incinerator near Bingo’s landfill.
I attended with Community Environmental Monitoring ( CEM) president Chris Nash and research director Charlie Pierce; I also spoke to the meeting. As well as being a journalist, I am a member of CEM which aims to support communities with monitoring, information and journalism.
Thanks to Kim Vernon for the photos of the meeting.