A controversial hazardous waste storage facility and salt mine planned for Central Australia has been given the tick of approval by the NT’s Environment Protection Authority.
If built, the Chandler facility would be the first repository of its kind in Australia and the nation’s largest hazardous waste surface storage facility, storing up to 9 per cent of Australia’s 5.6 million tonnes of hazardous waste.
EPA NT chairman Paul Vogel said Australia had a waste storage problem and the size of this project could make it a safer option for storing hazardous waste.
“Having hazardous waste stored in a deep geological repository and subject to stringent regulation is a better environmental solution for hazardous waste than storing it in all sorts of facilities around Australia subject to unknown and perhaps inadequate regulation,” he said.
“So I think it’s better to have it in one spot that we all know about and tightly regulated and well managed.”
The company behind the proposed facility, Tellus Holdings, wants to build about 120 kilometres south of Alice Springs.
But the nearby Indigenous community of Titjikala — about 15 kilometres from the proposed site — remains divided about the benefit and risks of such a project.
Some residents fear the toxic waste could leak and poison the land and its water supply, whereas some support the project, its proposed job creation for Aboriginal people and the paving of the dirt road between Alice Springs and Titjikala.
The Arid Lands Environment Centre’s assistant manager, Nicole Pietsch, said her organisation still had a number of concerns about the project and would continue to work with Titjikala residents.
“We do have some real concerns around the fact that this type of hazardous waste storage facility has never been tried in Australia before, we have concerns around the monitoring, compliance and also the enforcement,” she said.
“There’s examples in France and Germany where these kinds of waste storage facilities have existed and that there’s accidents that have happened and then there’s a huge environmental and financial cost to clean that up.
“We acknowledge the concerns of some Titjikala residents who don’t feel like they have been properly informed and who also have concerns about how this project may impact on cultural responsibilities of looking after country.”
‘We need to manage our waste materials differently’
Dr Vogel said the EPA had undertaken a very rigorous assessment of the potential risks and approved the Tellus Holdings project on the condition it met the EPA’s 19 recommendations.
“Subject to all those controls, there should be no level of significant impact to water resources or biodiversity or air quality,” he said.
“This is the first national deep geological repository for hazardous waste that’s been undertaken in Australia so that being the case this was subject to a very rigorous impact assessment.
“There would need to be, over time, a very high level of regulatory oversight to ensure that this facility indeed manages those identified potential impacts and risks.”
Dr Vogel said the recommendations included an annual independent and publicly disclosed audit at the company’s expense, ensuring the waste met the waste acceptance criteria, a safety assessment to ensure the facility was built and operated with best practice and an independent financial assessment of the company.
Tellus Holdings’ managing director, Duncan van der Merwe, said while the facility was a new concept to Australia, it has been widely used internationally.
“I’m pleased to see and hear that in the broader community there’s an acceptance that there’s a waste problem out in Australia,” he said.
“We do need to manage our waste materials differently and there’s an acceptance that we should view waste as a valuable source and we should find ways to recycle, recover and create more jobs as a result.
“And … on the mining side, diversity of revenue creates long-term stable mines, creates long-term stable economies.”
The Chandler Mine project is expected to create 270 jobs during the three years of construction and 180 ongoing jobs after that, with a target of 10 per cent Indigenous employment.
But the project is still subject to NT Government approval and the company would not give any indication of when construction would be likely to start.