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No man’s land: illegal asbestos dumping widespread across Victoria

Edward Russell, Spencer Gilder-Smith, Benjamin Ponsford and Sian Donazzon report.

The unsafe disposal of toxic waste is rampant across Victoria as authorities struggle to keep up with widespread asbestos abandonment.

Authorities have discovered more than 160 illegal asbestos dumps across Victoria in the past 15 months

Suburbs in Melbourne’s west and north-west have been hit the hardest, with Wyndham City Council and Hume City Council spending over $500,000 between them on clean-up fees in 2021.

RMIT Distinguished Professor Andy Ball says dumpers need to consider the “potential loss of life”. Picture by Sian Donazzon.

Hume City Council Deputy Mayor Karen Sherry says greed is a primary motivation for culprits wrongfully dumping asbestos.

“Proper disposal can be expensive, so those responsible may choose to illegally dump to avoid the costs,” she said.

“This means [construction companies] can either quote less for a removal job or charge the full amount and dump anyway, which creates a profit for them.”

In July 2021, the state’s landfill levy increased from $65.90 to $105.90 per tonne of waste.

Councillor Sherry said curtailing this issue does not fall solely on local governments or councils.

“We do what we can to investigate and respond to illegal asbestos dumping, however, it is significantly harder to prevent and reduce it,” she said.

But RMIT Distinguished Professor of Environmental Microbiology, Andy Ball, who works closely with the EPA, said that local councils can lift their game when it comes to informing the public about the lethal nature of asbestos.

Asbestos is a toxic substance that has been used in building since the 1920s. One sub-type, brown asbestos, was banned in Australia in the mid-eighties, and white asbestos was banned in 2003. It causes cancer in humans and does not easily break down in the environment.

“I don't see asbestos dumping as one of those things that are talked about at council. [Councils] can do a better job of raising the profile and emphasising the impacts," he said.

A 2021 report by environmental organisation Keep Victoria Beautiful indicated many councils do not have the proper frameworks in place to fully address combating toxic waste.

In fact, a stronger education campaign focused on spreading awareness would help stem the growing amount of dumping, said Ball.

“The very fact that we have this issue means that we're not getting the message out. If companies and individuals really understood the implications of what they're doing, they would think more about not doing it,” he said.

Dumped asbestos is a “ticking time bomb” and removing it is critical, as the longer it lasts, the more potent it is, said Ball.

A powdery substance is marked by a red flag in Truganina near a dumping site from late 2022. Picture by Sian Donazzon.

“Asbestos gets worse with age because it fragments. It becomes more and more toxic because you're getting smaller particles, which can find their way into the lungs of any organism,” he said.

The consequences are dire for residents who live near dumping hotspots.

Truganina resident Isabella Memedi says she hasn’t opened the windows in her house for a while to avoid inhaling the carcinogenic substance.

Memedi says she doesn’t want to take any chances and worries for her health when asbestos presents itself, a common sight in Melbourne’s outer west.

Local Isabella Memedi believes the presence of asbestos is a legitimate cause for concern. Picture by Sian Donazzon.

“You can spot it on the side of the road or in the fields. I’m no expert, but when you see what looks like old, white plasterboard or powder, you wind up your windows,” she said.

“No one wants to be breathing in nasty chemicals. Who knows what’s out there.”

The EPA declined to comment.


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