City of Busselton speak out on groundwater contamination

The City of Busselton have responded to concerns about a contamination in Vasse which has left 18 properties without access to their bores because noxious chemicals have leached into the groundwater.

Arsenic, nickel, manganese, sulfate, benzene, chlorinated hydrocarbons including solvents and other products were found in the groundwater.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation found the source of the groundwater contamination had come from the Busselton Waste Facility which is owned by the city.

Under the Contamination Act 2003 the city are responsible for remediation of affected sites where the contamination originated from the Busselton Waste Facility.

The city’s director of engineering and works services Oliver Darby said up until 2016 they had only been testing for certain contaminants when they were directed to test for more.

It was then contaminants were found in the groundwater which exceeded health criteria on the affected residential properties.

The waste facility on Rendezvous Road has been used as a waste disposal and landfill for around 50 years, Mr Darby said.

Since 1997, the city were required by DWER to monitor groundwater quality at the facility, then in 2012 were asked to test groundwater at adjoining properties because some contaminants had exceeded health criteria.

“Relevant regulatory guidelines determine the suite of contaminants which have to be investigated.”

Mr Darby said, these days waste disposal sites were designed with strict environmental controls that prevented leakage of contaminates into the groundwater.

“Unfortunately that was not the case in years gone by. Like many other local governments the city is faced with contamination issues from sites that operated decades ago,” he said.

Residents who are affected by the contamination want access to clean water and compensation to access it.

Mr Darby said the city would work with them to find long term solutions but would need to investigate further which groundwater contaminants were related to the tip and not other historical land uses.

”The city investigations revealed groundwater gradient of the tip contained contaminents which were not related to the tip, but other historical practices or land uses.

“Liability issues will need to be considered and resolved to clarify whether and to what extent other sources caused or contributed to the contamination.”

Mr Darby said they would be in a position to determine liability issues by mid 2019 which may or may not include some form of financial assistance or compensation.

Shadow minister for environment and South West MLC Steve Thomas said this problem would likely arise at other old tip sites across the Swan Coastal Plain.

Many of the old landfill sites in WA were not lined, as was the case in Busselton.

Mr Thomas said the state government would have to step up and start a program to look at old contaminated tip sites particularly around the coastal plain where the water tables were high.

He said there would be rubbish tips from around 200 kilometres north of Perth to 250 km south up and down the coast which could be contaminated sites potentially causing damage.

“It is probably beyond the city and it will certainly be found everywhere, the state has a massive issue on its plate” he said.

“This process will take years to sort out and will be a problem for years to come, not just in Busselton but for a whole lot of local governments.

“In the old days people just found a spot where nobody lived and dumped waste there, so this will be a critical issue for years to come.

“The state government has no choice but to work with local governments to do their best to remedy this, it could takes years to sort out ultimately, who is to blame and under what circumstances.

“I feel for the landowners affected, they have inherited a pretty diabolical problem and you could argue the current council have inherited the same thing.”

Perth-based lawyer Craig Wallace is a specialist in town planning and environmental law as it pertains to property development and land use.

He played an instrumental role in stopping a coal mine from being developed in Margaret River because of a high-risk of contamination seeping into the Leederville aquifer.

Mr Wallace said the affected landowners should take independent legal advice in relation to their position under the CS Act and for any damage caused to their land.

As he understood the issue, Mr Wallace said there were two types of classification under the CS Act that affected the city’s landfill and the affected sites.

He said the landfill site was classified as contaminated - remediation required and the affected sites classified as contaminated- restricted use of groundwater.

”The essence of the CS Act is to identify, classify contamination and to attribute responsibility for remediation in appropriate circumstances,” he said.

“In relation to remediation responsibility the CS Act identifies a hierarchy, with a clear focus on the polluter bearing the primary responsibility.”

Under the CS Act, Mr Wallace said, at this stage the city were limited to actions required as a result of the classification of the landfill itself.  

“These include further investigation and remediation consistent with a remediation action plan prepared in future,” he said.

“Damage to someone elses property can also be the subject of a civil court action and on the proviso that the relevant legal elements of such an action can be demonstrated can result in a claim for damages. 

“There is nothing in the CS Act or the EP Act that precludes the affected landowners from bringing such an action against the City, particularly in circumstances of the breach of an environmental approval.”

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