The NSW Environment Protection Authority ( EPA) has finally begun criminal proceedings in the NSW Land and Environment Court against Bingo Industries’ Eastern Park waste facility.

The EPA has charged Dial-A-Dump Pty Ltd with breaching Section 129 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 by allegedly emitting offensive odours from its premises. The legal action is a result of hundreds of complaints of foul odours lodged by residents living around the landfill between April and July last year. The odours have continued this year and have been particularly bad in recent weeks. Further investigation may lead to more prosecutions.

Dial-a-Dump Pty Ltd is the company which was granted a licence to operate a waste facility in an old quarry at Eastern Creek in 2012. The company was then owned by Ian Malouf who had previously operated a landfill in St Peters. In 2018, Bingo Industries bought Dial-a-Dump which became a subsidiary of Bingo Industries. Last year, Macquarie Asset Management (MAM) took over Bingo which made Dial-A-Dump Pty Ltd one of hundreds of subsidiaries of MAM. MAM which operates in 27 countries is part of the Macquarie Group.

Yesterday, the EPA emailed residents who had provided legal investigators with evidence. Some residents spent many hours documenting details of times during which they were affected by odours and the impact on their lives including their health. Last year I reported on these health complaints that include breathing difficulties, asthma, nausea, headaches, sleeplessness and an inability to spend time outdoors.

Residents had become increasingly frustrated at the failure to prosecute Bingo. In its email, the EPA explained the delay this way:

It requires considerable investigative effort to get to a point where we can prosecute an odour offence like this one, hence the length of time since the odours were first detected. However, given the significant impact on the community, it was important that this Bingo company be held to account. It is only through working closely with local residents that we have been able to gather enough data and evidence to commence this prosecution. Thank you for your patience and assistance.

Bingo Industries waste facility at Eastern Park is surrounded by suburbs including Minchinbury, Rooty Hill and Erskine Park.

How much is $1 million? - it depends on who you are.

The offence of emitting foul odours carries a maximum penalty for a corporation of $1 million. (It is not yet clear if there is more than one prosecution). While this is a lot of money, it is a trifling amount for a very large company. In 2020, Bingo increased a $22.3 million profit in 2019 to $66 million in 2020, a 196 per cent increase. Last year, it was sold to Macquarie Asset Management (MAM) for $2.3 billion. In 2021, MAM contributed $A2,074 million to the profits of Macquarie Group. The net profit of the whole Macquarie Group was more than A$3,000 million (or $3 billion).

The prosecution is good news for the residents but in itself won’t stop the odours that were once again overwhelming residents this week. In previous stories, I’ve explained other regulatory tools that the EPA has used to try to control the odours including ‘clean up’ notices and ‘prevention notices’. Last year the EPA varied the licence to include an instruction to install gas flares to burn the emissions. These first began operating in May 2021 but have clearly not been enough to eliminate the odours which have again been bad in recent months. More gas wells are now being installed. Questions remain, however, about why so much odour is being released from a landfill that is not licensed to accept non-putrescible waste. If large amounts organic waste have not been accepted, one would not expect large amounts of hydrogen sulphide (‘rotten egg’ gas) to be released by decomposing waste.

In relation to the maximum $1 million fine, one resident commented, “Probably a sneeze for them.” Others suggested that the company should be fined for each and every breach of its licence or the law should be changed to allow for bigger fines.

The news that EPA has charged Bingo was first announced on 2GB which has been the only mainstream media outlet to focus serious attention on Bingo’s odour problem. Yesterday EPA executive Steve Beaman told 2 GB’s Ben Fordham,”We really want to make sure that given the impact on the community, it’s a significant impact, we really want to hold Bingo to account.” Asked to explain the delay, he said, “We have got to pull a brief together. We have to do it in a methodical and careful way to make sure we have a strong brief of evidence.”

Fordham responded that he had been “underwhelmed with the reaction from the EPA”.

Given that that this is a criminal prosecution relating to events that happened in Autumn 2021, a year seems a very long time to take to prepare an evidence brief. This raises questions about whether the EPA is sufficiently resourced to effectively hold corporations to account when their operations cause harm to the community.

The EPA has invited residents who have further evidence of Bingo allowing emissions to escape from the waste facility to contact the EPA. Residents can contact the EPA on its complaints line 131555.

Prosecution embarrassing for company pursuing ‘green image’ and for politicians who promote it.

The court case is politically embarrassing for Bingo and its owner Macquarie. Both invest a lot in building a ‘green’ image. Given the amount of publicly available evidence of Bingo’s environmental problems, Macquarie was well aware of these issues when it acquired the company. Indeed Bingo’s corporate spokesperson Chris Gordon told me that they were fully informed.

Political donations

Macquarie has strong relationships with Australia’s ruling LNP Coalition and the Australian Labor Party. In fact, it is one of Australia’s biggest corporate donors. According to the Australian Electoral Commission’s most recent data, Macquarie group donated more than $230,000 to the Liberal, National and Labor parties in 2020-2021. This included about $120,000 to the Liberal and National Parties and $110,000 to the Labor party. It has donated to these parties every year since 2008. The public will not be informed of its 2021 to 2022 donations until well after the Federal election.

Bingo has also received support from the Federal and NSW governments for its waste recycling plant that sends materials that can’t be recycled down a chute into the landfill.

In April last year, while the odours were very bad, the Federal Minister Sussan Ley and the new CEO of the EPA Tracy Mackey visited the site to help its then CEO Daniel Tartak and Ian Malouf cut the ribbon on a new section of the waste facility. Local residents were dismayed that at a time when they were experiencing such distressing impacts from the facility, politicians and senior government bureaucrats would offer such valuable promotion to the company. In response to questions, the EPA CEO made it clear that she regards this as ‘business as usual’ in relationships with industry.

This year, NSW Labor politicians have also visited the site. One of them, MP for Prospect Hugh McDermott, later published a glowing endorsement of the facility on his Facebook page. However, local NSW Labor MP for Mount Druitt Edmond Atalla has made many representations to the NSW government on behalf of residents and spoken in NSW Parliament calling attention to Bingo’s serious impacts on the quality of life of the community he represents. Last year, local Federal Labor MP Chris Bowen called for Bingo to be closed until the odours were fixed. His call was ignored and he has not repeated it.

Membership of Bingo board has become a private matter

When MAM took over Bingo, a new Board was formed which was chaired by influential businessman Tony Shepherd and included Daniel Tartak, whose family began Bingo Industries, and Ian Malouf, the original owner of Dial-A-Dump. (See previous stories in this series.) As normally happens after a takeover, MAM also appointed several of its directors to the Board. When I recently checked I could no longer find the Board membership on the web so I asked Macquarie why it was no longer published on its website. I received this response: “BINGO Industries is now privately owned so the Board details are no longer on the website”.

The Macquarie Board is high-powered. Its chairperson Glen Stevens was previously Governor of the Reserve Bank. Another Macquarie director Michael Coleman was previously a Chairperson of Bingo Industries and is an ex partner of the major consulting firm KPMG. He is also Deputy Chair of Planet Ark Environmental Foundation which is a partner of Bingo.

Malouf’s waste incinerator proposal

Malouf, who has a long record of environmental mismanagement, was previously a donor and supporter of the NSW Liberal Party. His company Next Generation is still trying to get the NSW government to approve a ‘waste to energy’ incinerator on a site close to the Eastern Creek waste facility. No Incinerator for Western Sydney has campaigned against this project for 7 years. Even though his proposal was rejected on environmental grounds by the NSW Planning Commission, Malouf continues to appeal against the Commission’s decision and has been allowed to update his application. This suggests that Malouf is not placing much reliance on the NSW government’s stated policy that it does not intend to approve waste incinerators in Western Sydney. Malouf’s persistence reinforces the residents’ concern that the so-called policy has no legal basis and could easily be reversed at any time. We cannot be sure whether Malouf continues to be associated with the Bingo Industries Board because according to a MAM spokesperson, membership of the Bingo board is no longer public as Bingo is now a private company within Macquarie Group.

Late last year, Macquarie-owned Bingo Industries announced that it had lodged applications for two proposals to expand its recycling operations at Eastern Creek. These applications are now running behind schedule. While the prosecutions are before the court, it is hard to see how NSW Planning could approve these applications. It would be unwise to be confident of this however because in April 2020, NSW Planning supported an earlier application by Bingo to massively expand its landfill limits and operate 24 hours a day despite opposition from hundreds of residents.

Poor management of asbestos

Community confidence in Bingo’s ability to operate safely is low.

Secretary of the NSW branch of the Australian Workers’ Union, Tony Callinan, has labelled the Bingo site at Eastern Creek a “disgrace” and says that “workers are exposed to numerous risks that are unacceptable to the AWU including potential exposure to asbestos.”

The site has been licensed to accept asbestos since it opened in 2012. It has had at least three compliance issues with its handling of asbestos in the last four years. Asbestos is deadly and if inhaled on even one occasion can cause mesothelioma cancer for which there is no cure. There are very strict guidelines for the disposal of asbestos, and it must be immediately covered as soon as it is delivered to a landfill.

In 2016, the EPA found that there were problems with Dial-A-Dump’s (then owned by Ian Malouf) handling of asbestos. In 2018, the waste facility was fined $23,300 plus $25,000 court costs for failing to cover asbestos waste with clean fill or soil.

In 2021, the NSW Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) members raised concerns with their union about unsafe handling of asbestos at the Eastern Creek site.

Following these complaints, union organisers attempted to visit the site. Union officials have ‘right of entry’ for safety matters. Bingo declined to grant entry, so NSW Secretary Callinan visited the site himself and gained entry. Callinan, who is trained to recognise asbestos, told the author that he identified exposed asbestos near the chute that carries excess waste from the recycling plant to the landfill. Bingo managers would not allow him to remove the sample from the site.

While still at the Eastern Creek site, Callinan called workplace health and safety regulator SafeworkNSW and insisted they come to the site. A media spokesperson for Safework NSW confirmed, “The inspection identified a variety of issues regarding asbestos management, mobile plant movements and electrical safety. As a result, SafeWork issued a number of improvement notices to remedy the issues identified on site.” At this stage, no penalty infringement notices have been issued.

“Exposure to asbestos itself is manageable but at the time of my visit the workers being exposed had not been appropriately trained in safe handling of asbestos and were not being provided with the PPE necessary to ensure their safety,“said Callinan.

Following the visits by Callinan and SafeworkNSW, the NSW EPA issued a penalty notice in January this year fining Bingo Industries $15,000 for exposing asbestos on the site in June 2021. Concerned workers contacted the union in the months between June and December, so it would seem likely there have been continuing incidences of asbestos mishandling.

Is $15,000 a sufficient fine for a corporation that has breached its duty of care to workers and the community in its handling of a deadly material?

Why has the Eastern Creek site been allowed to operate unsafely for so long?

While EPA charges against Bingo are welcome, these allegations, which will take months if not years to resolve, need to be seen in a much wider frame of poor environmental management. They underscore questions that I have previously raised about NSW Planning’s active support for a massive expansion of the site in 2020 and point to the need to reject any further plans for more waste developments on the site.

Western Sydney residents and workers should not pay the price for poor urban planning and political decision making with their health and well being.

You can read more about the story of Bingo, the EPA and the odours here.

Wendy Bacon is a member of Community Environment Monitoring which is assisting residents in their attempts to maintain a healthy community.