Introduction

Case studies of what is wrong with the NSW Planning system are not hard to find. One such case study is Westconnex, about which I’ve written a lot of stories. Sydney’s ever expanding tollway network continues to have a heavy impact on inner Sydney communities but the cost of tolls and failure to provide alternative transport is mostly borne by residents in Sydney’s West and Southwest. Western Sydney, which is where most of the city’s 5 million residents live, also bore the brunt of COVID lockdowns and will bear the brunt of rising heat due to climate change. This carries political risks for both the Federal and State governments. In response, the NSW government has been pushing the message that they care a lot about Western Sydney communities.

This case study examines the development of the massive Bingo Industries site at Eastern Creek. After you read it, you will not be surprising that their experience of living near this ever-expanding waste operation has left some residents feeling like they are being treated with contempt rather than consideration. This story leads to the question: How much does the NSW government actually care about residents in Western Sydney? It’s the fourth story in my series on the waste industry I hope it’s of interest to communities everywhere because it also demonstrates problems with NSW planning and environmental regulation shared across the state.

Update: Since completing this story, I have received more answers from Bingo. This has led to further investigation. I will publish another story with fresh information soon.

Bingo Industries spring plans for major expansion on Western Sydney communities

Bingo Industries has applied to the NSW government for a major expansion of its activities at Eastern Creek in Western Sydney, while it is currently under investigation for spreading foul odours across nearby suburbs.

The expansion plans, which were sprung on the community in recent weeks, come in three parts – a 75% increase in the quantity of waste that can be accepted for processing; new materials sorting buildings on its western boundaries; and a permanent gas system to process an excessive amount of gas emanating from the landfill and into surrounding areas.

The company received a large amount of negative publicity earlier in the year after frustrated members of the community went to the media about suffering from distressing hydrogen sulphide (‘rotten egg’ gas) odours for many weeks. (You can read more about this here and here.) This followed complaints about odours in the same area from April to July in 2020.

In June, when I published my last Bingo story, Federal Labor MP Chris Bowen and State and local Labor politicians were calling for the NSW EPA to suspend Bingo’s licence. On November 1, Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann wrote to NSW Minister for the Environment Matt Kean asking for an explanation for the odours and poor management of the site.

Bingo Industries was slow to accept that the odours came from its vast premises that are on the edge of an industrial zone located near suburbs including Minchinbury, Erskine Park, St Clair and Rooty Hill, all of which have been impacted by the odours. But it took Blacktown Council officers one inspection to quickly identify Bingo as the source of the odours on March 23. A couple of weeks later the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) also identified Bingo as the source of the odours.

Bingo continues to blame the major rains in March this year for months of insufferable odours that prevented people from sleeping or using their gardens. It insists that it has never had a verified odour complaint before April 2021. Community Environment Monitoring research director and independent environmental scientist Charlie Pierce has advised that the intense rain may have made the odours worse. An earlier 2019 audit showed water on the site has not been managed well. Also, residents complaints to the EPA show that the odours began before the rain event. According to documents released under freedom of information laws by the EPA, there were also more than 100 odour complaints between April and July in 2020. Many of the complainants were confident that the odours came from Bingo. No penalties were imposed although the EPA did warn Bingo that it had admitted accepting waste that could cause odours and that it should cease that or face action.

Bingo’s licence contains a condition that it cannot emit odours from the site. Its landfill licence was granted on the basis that the site is only licensed to accept non-putrescible waste, which is not susceptible to decomposition. This includes construction and demolition (C & D) waste, some of which it processes into new products such as road base. The residual waste that cannot be processed goes into the landfill, which is also licensed to put hazardous asbestos waste and contaminated soils directly into the landfill.

No one has yet provided the community or local politicians with a satisfactory explanation about why the odours are happening in a non-putrescible waste dump or why the landfill was not required to be managed in a way that would prevent major amounts of water interacting with decomposing waste. Part of the problem may have been caused by inadequate coverage of waste, which the EPA prefers to be covered with virgin soil. Bingo wanted to use another product and even though the EPA did not consent, the company started using it anyway. Rather than penalise them, the EPA allowed the company to go on using it. This year, the EPA has ruled that they cannot continue to use it.

After the odours crisis became public, the EPA imposed new conditions on Bingo’s operations, including ones reducing the amount of permissible landfill area and changing the way that waste is covered. Bingo has installed a temporary gas system which is burning methane and hydrogen sulphide gases coming out of the landfill. When one of the temporary gas wells broke in July, the odours quickly returned.

Meanwhile the NSW EPA continues to investigate breaches of Bingo’s licence relating to more than 400 odour complaints from residents in 2021. Two weeks ago, the EPA fined Bingo $30,000 for waste tracked onto public roads by trucks leaving the premises. This followed several warnings and two inspections, each of which attracted $16,000 fines. While this might seem like a small matter, industrial sites are prohibited from allowing dirt, dust or other sediment to leave their premises, or to be “washed into creeks or rivers, where it can harm plants, fish, wildlife and water quality,” said EPA Executive Director Regulatory Operations Steve Beaman. These fines further highlight Bingo’s poor environmental record, including many problems found during an EPA audit of the site in 2018/2019.

Big unanswered question hanging over Bingo’s Eastern Creek operations

So a huge question is hanging over Bingo’s operations and the regulation of its Eastern Creek site, both now and ever since 2012 when it opened. If Bingo has not been accepting organic waste, why has it been emitting so much gas? What more does the EPA know and why won’t it be open with the community? Recently, an EPA manager told Community Environment Monitoring’s research director and experienced environmental scientist Charlie Pierce that the site was emitting 1800 m3/hr (cubic metres an hour) at 50 % methane. That is a lot of gas.

Macquarie takeover

In the middle of the year, Bingo was taken over by Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets, a major global manager of infrastructure and part of the Macquarie Group which began in Australia. The Chairperson of Macquarie Specialised Asset Management Limited Tony Shepherd has also become the Chair of Bingo. Shepherd is a powerful business figure with lots of political clout. He is also Chair of Venues NSW (Stadiums), the GWS Giants football team and was the first Chair of Westconnex, having played a major role in the privatisation of tollways in Australia. He a director of Virgin Australia, Snowy Hydro and Racing NSW. According to Bingo, Macquarie was kept abreast of all developments during its due diligence period before its takeover. The ex-CEO of the NSW EPA Barry Buffier, who joined the Bingo board after he left the EPA, has retired from the Board (Read more about the relationship between the EPA and Bingo here.)

Community Consultation?

Residents are still waiting for explanations from the EPA about the odours. Some have been interviewed for a possible prosecution of Bingo. So you can imagine how surprised they were when some residents received a leaflet announcing that Bingo was inviting them to one of two webinars about some new developments. These were held on the November 4 and 9 with feedback due by November 22.

With community trust in the company at an all-time low, Bingo has hired Elton Consulting, a firm that is very experienced in what is called ‘community engagement’ between their clients ( government or companies) and the public. One of their jobs is preparing reports to allow their clients to tick the “community consultation” box when submitting detailed planning documents for approval. Elton provides ongoing advice to Infrastructure NSW and many other government projects. In 2019, Elton Consulting was taken over by an even bigger outfit WSP that employs 50,000 people globally. According to its website, it had gross revenue of $20 billion and net revenue of $2 billion last financial year. WSP produces “creative, comprehensive and sustainable engineering solutions for a future where society can thrive”, including by building tunnels, small and big oil and gas installations as well as specialising in advising companies on managing their communications.

Like most local communities, those around what is now called the Eastern Creek Recycling Ecology Park have Facebook sites. This is where news of the Bingo webinar spread – but what quickly became clear was that a large number of residents had not received a leaflet. This fuelled distrust.

Presumably these webinars are part of Bingo’s new community engagement strategy, which the NSW EPA required the company to publish on its website by September 22. Checks after this date revealed that despite the EPA’s requirement, the engagement strategy could not be found on the Bingo site. Some monitoring results were also missing. More recently a page called Community Engagement has appeared. It was updated with details of the new developments two days before the first webinar.

A small number of people including myself joined the first webinar. It was chaired by Deborah Palmer, a person used to challenges as she managed the community engagement for the Light Rail in Sydney and is currently managing community engagement for Western Sydney’s Badgerys Creek Airport. Her manner is smooth, respectful and very positive. She was joined by Bingo’s corporate manager Chris Gordon, who used to work for Leightons (CIMIC) in the Middle East, and compliance manager Brad Searle, who until recently worked at Arcadis which is another big corporation that employs 27,000 people in 70 countries and claims to be a world leader in engineering and consultation solutions. Claire Hodgson who works for Arcadis is managing the EIS process for Bingo.

A large part of the seminar was devoted to an overview of Bingo’s operations and how it fitted with the government’s overall waste strategy. Bingo claims to be a ‘green’ company aiming to reprocess construction, demolition and commercial waste into new products, such as road base for more tollroads. It’s called ‘closing the gap’ and indeed has considerable advantages over landfilling. Nevertheless, there are questions that need to be debated about whether profit-driven recycling businesses also depend on maintaining a waste stream rather than reducing it.

For example, in March 2020, NSW Planning supported an extension of the landfill on the grounds that the waste facilities were needed by ongoing major projects like Westconnex and the Western Harbour link, both of which are strongly opposed by many including independent transport experts. There is also the issue of whether the reprocessing of commercial packaging discourages the reduction of unnecessary plastic and cardboard.

Even if the strategy is a good one, it cannot justify destroying the environment of a growing residential area which was there before the development, or for flouting environmental regulations.

This community has already spent the last seven years fighting proposals for a Waste to Energy incinerator on an Eastern Creek site. Only recently, the NSW government finally announced that the controversial technology would not be developed in Western Sydney. This followed a No Incinerator community campaign that included public meetings, court appearances, protests, parliamentary motions and pressure on local MPs, as well as detailed objections to proposals by Bingo director Ian Malouf. (Malouf’s incinerator project was not part of Bingo’s Eastern Creek Recycling projects.)

After the overview of Bingo’s activities at the webinar, the three new proposals were outlined briefly. But it was only when I saw this screenshot near the end of the presentation that I realised how long that two of the three projects had been in the pipeline. The community were the last to be told. The giveaway word was SEARS.

Screenshot of Slide 38 in 42 page Bingo Presentation. You can view the whole presentation here.

What are SEARS?

Many residents would not know what is meant by SEARs. SEAR is an acronym for the Department of Planning Industry and Environment’s Secretary Environmental Assessment Requirements that DPIE issue after a proposal is put forward. By the time these are issued, those proposing the development have already done quite a bit of work. The SEARs guide the environmental process.

No more information or links to these SEARs have been supplied to the residents. My experience with other projects meant that I expected that I should be able to find them on the Planning (DPIE) website. In fact, I found this difficult because I was using an old name for the projects. In response to my questions, Bingo sent me two links and an explanation about the third project.

Growing ‘throughput’ at Eastern Creek

This first project was called the Eastern Creek REP Throughput Increase but now has a more positive name: Recycling Optimisation Project. (It’s the middle line on the screenshot.) The application process began in 2019 but was not lodged until November 2020. Here is a link to the proposal on the Planning website.

Bingo wants the DPIE to allow its REP ( Recycling Ecology Plant) to accept 3.5 million tonnes per annum rather than its existing limit of 2 million tonnes. This is a 75% increase and of course will be mean more trucks, although Bingo argues that the trucks will be bigger so the increase may not be as bad as it seems.

The REP is currently reprocessing up to 81% of waste and Bingo hopes to increase the efficiency but even so, there will obviously be an increase in the amount of waste going to landfill if the increased limits are granted. In fact, we could expect that approximately 700,000 tonnes per annum would go to the landfill which is more than it takes at the moment. In addition to the 700,000 you also have approximately 450,000 tonnes of asbestos and other hazardous waste that goes directly to the landfill.

Bingo is quick to point out that approval for the REP increase does not mean an increase in landfill limits. It failed to explain however that this is because in April 2020, it succeeded in an application to increase its landfill limits to 1m tonnes per annum and some parts of its operations to 24 hours a day. So it got the extension to its hours of operation and landfill limit in advance of this latest application. If it goes through, Bingo could fairly quickly be near its limits.

There were sufficient objections to its landfill expansion proposal in 2019 for DPIE to be required to send it to an Independent Planning Panel. Normally the residents would have had a chance to appear before the panel. Unfortunately due to COVID, the hearing was on Zoom. Zoom oral evidence should have been possible but instead the Planning Panel only provided concerned residents to send emails. Even residents actively involved in the landfill issues were not aware of the landfill modification hearing. Nearly all of those who were aware saw no point in another email as they had already emailed their earlier submissions. Also, at the time, residents were more preoccupied with COVID and toxic fumes from an unexplained fire (which was the second at the landfill) and only one email opposing the extension was sent. Intentionally or not, the community were shut out of the process, although admittedly it is unlikely to have made any difference to the Panel decision.

Given that the DPIE supported the proposal, it was no surprise that the application was approved. The Panel was concerned that the air quality impacts of the proposal would increase levels that are already above NSW and national limits. This obstacle to approval was solved by imposing a condition that an updated air quality study and plan had to be completed within 6 months of approval. Bingo did not meet this condition but Planning provided an extension. A new independent air quality management plan by consultant Northstar was finally completed 8 months after the 6 months expiry date. (I tried to interview this consultant but Bingo refused to permit it on the grounds of “commercial-in-confidence”.)

There is insufficient space in this blog post to explore this new ‘throughput’ proposal in more detail. Those who are interested should read the response of the EPA to Bingo’s application for SEARs. They note potential impacts on residents and that “as recently as September 2020, odour and dust complaints have been made by impacted residents and businesses relating to current operations at Eastern Creek REP.” This stands in contrast to Bingo’s assertion that the odour problem did not occur before the rain event in 2021. The EPA’s comment was written before 400 further complaints in 2021.

To put the EPA contribution into perspective, it helps to know that the NSW EPA often makes comments such as these but since the agency was placed under the Planning Minister’s control, it usually rolls over or is ignored. (For example, even when the EPA argued that the Stage 3 of Westconnex should not go ahead without more assessment of its impacts, DPIE overruled it.)

Blacktown Council officers also raised concerns about the project in a response to the proposed SEARs.

The only people who were not kept informed about the application were the members of the communities that will be directly impacted. They will, however, have an opportunity to make submissions after Arcadis’s EIS is lodged in February next year. Bingo anticipates approval for dramatic growth its throughput by later next year and to be operating according to new conditions in 2023. After that a lot more 24 hour work can be expected.

Modification number 9 for the Recycling Ecology Project

The REP was first approved nearly a decade ago. Since then it has been modified 8 times. This is an absurd way to plan and results in an operation that has never been assessed as a whole and is barely recognisable when compared to the original proposal. Here is where you can find more about this proposal on the DPIE website.

This new proposal is to extend activities on the western Erskine Park side of the site and to construct new buildings to enclose some activities that are now done in the open. It is also proposed to seal some internal roads which the EPA wanted Bingo to do last year but at that time the company did not consider it to be feasible.

In its response to the application for SEARs, Blacktown Council quite rightly made the point in a letter to the DPIE in October this year:

This is the 9th modification application for this development in relation to this development application. We are of the belief that a masterplan for the whole site should be prepared and demonstrate how this proposal fits in with the existing site operations and any future plans for the site. We are also concerned that every new proposal at the Genesis/Bingo site is ad hoc and individual and does not have adequate regard to the whole of site operation.

c. Further to the point above, we question at what point does this development no longer remain ‘substantially the same development’ and a new development application and environmental impact statement is required. In this regard, we are concerned that the development of the site is ever expanding under a very old development application.

The EPA also had concerns:

The EPA has concerns regarding the Proposal as there have been significant historical issues associated with odour, dust and sediment tracking from the Premises. The addition of this type of expansion to the waste facility will pose a moderate risk of generating additional impacts on the surrounding residential communities and other sensitive receivers. Historically these impacts have not been adequately controlled through mitigation procedures. The EPA therefore requests that these concerns be noted and considered up front. Should the proposal proceed to the assessment stage, the EPA requests that the EIS explicitly demonstrates how the location is appropriate for the proposed use, taking into account its proximity to residential and other sensitive receivers.

The EIS for this proposal will also not be published until next year after which there will be a public consultation period and a decision. The residents however are entitled to ask if their ‘objections’ will be taken seriously or whether they will be seen more as a ‘community engagement’ challenge to be managed away through ‘planning conditions’ and PR strategies like community grants schemes or community working parties.

Why is a permanent gas system needed for a non-putrescible landfill?

The most urgent proposal is the one for a permanent gas system to be installed on the landfill. In response to my request for help finding the published SEARs, Bingo’s Chris Gordon replied:

“The permanent flare is being assessed under a 4.55 (1a) planning approval pathway under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 as a modification under the sites Project Approval. SEARs have been issued but these assessment requirements are not typically made available on the Department’s website.”

This did not sound promising so I looked up Section 4.55 (1a). I was shocked to see that this section is an exemption from normal State Significant project modifications because the impact will be ‘minimal’.

This raises many questions. What is causing so much methane and hydrogen sulphide to be produced that a permanent gas system involving substantial construction needs to be installed. Why is the current system not good enough?

I asked at webinar for reports providing a breakdown of the components of the material going directly to landfill and in the residue from the recycling. I have been told that there is a report but it is not available to the public.

A permanent gas flare system may be a solution that the community supports, but there are too many serious questions for this to be just given a bureaucratic tick.

  • Why has the EPA not provided the public with a full report on their dealings with Bingo and knowledge of the landfill problems?
  • Why has no action been taken over a history of odour complaints going back more than two years?
  • In its presentation, Bingo now says that non-putrescible waste does not ‘typically’ produce odours? What does that mean? ‘Usually’? That is a huge qualification to the normal way of describing non-putrescible waste?
  • What would happen if the flare system got knocked out by extreme weather?
  • What other impacts, risks and emissions will the permanent gas system have?
  • Could it be used as a cover for Bingo to accept putrescible waste?

I asked Bingo why if the SEARs (which are not published) were issued in September, residents were not told until November.

This was the answer:

Out of respect for Community members’ time, we wanted to provide an update and opportunity for community to respond to all three DAs at the same time, rather than have to go back to them with three separate updates. Community members still have adequate time to review and respond to the application.

How can the public respond without seeing the application?

The public urgently needs to know more about the reasons for installing a permanent facility and the likely impacts on them – good or bad. I asked Bingo how the public are supposed to respond. Gordon answered:

As advised during each of the community webinars residents can email feedback to ECREPfeedback@WSP.com before Monday 22 November 2021.

Who in authority told Bingo that it does not need to go through normal application processes for its permanent gas installation? I will be asking DPIE questions about this in the coming week.

Bingo states that it has “advice from technical experts” that the gas installation is the best solution and one that is used by other landfills (My understanding is that gas extraction is for landfills that accept organic wastes that decompose). If these technical reports exist, they should be shared with the community. How can you respond to an application for which you have no documentation other than a brief powerpoint summary from Bingo which, in its latest answers to me, still insists that there was not a single verified odour complaint before this year. This claim flies in the face of EPA documents released under Freedom of Information laws and a large amount of evidence from the community.

Is this a community consultation, a denial of a right to have a say or a communication failure?

The MP for Mount Druitt Edmond Atalla raised concerns about why so many households had not received the webinar leaflet that Bingo says it distributed. He supplied a long list of streets. The explanation given was that these households may have had ‘no junk mail’ signs but more Facebook communication later confirmed that this was not the case. In the days after the first webinar, Elton distributed another leaflet announcing a third webinar. In all 4000 leaflets were distributed across Erskine Park, Minchinbury, Eastern Creek and St Clair. More Facebook questions from residents quickly confirmed that scores of residents in these suburbs claimed not to have received the leaflet. On Friday, I sent Bingo a number of questions to Gordon. In response to a question about the failure in the leaflet delivery, he said “some houses …are missed because of access issues or where walkers have taken a break or taken shelter during inclement weather”.

The Bingo situation is a complicated and ongoing one that impacts suburbs in Western Sydney. There is little or no local media with the resources to investigate these issues.

The issues including the problems with our planning system that affect us all. In a further post I will tease out a list of these planning problems. If you have any ideas or further issues that could be raised, email me at: wendybacon1@gmail.com.

I am a member of Community Environment Monitoring and a retired journalist who applies the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics in my reporting. I do my reports voluntarily as a community service. Please help share this report.