EPA refuses to waive controversial waste levy for Stockon beach clean-up

THE NSW EPA has refused to waive its controversial waste levy, that will add more than $1 million to the cost of cleaning up rubbish from an old tip site uncovered on Stockton beach, because the weather event that caused the environmental emergency was not severe enough.

Hunter Water and Newcastle City Council requested an exemption from the $138.20 per tonne waste levy that was designed to encourage recycling by increasing the cost of dumping to landfill.

The EPA can grant exemptions from paying the waste levy if rubbish has been caused by a severe weather event.

But the request was denied on the grounds that the weather event that caused the damage at Stockton was not severe enough. 

Decades of household rubbish was exposed on Stockton beach by wild weather that lasted four days in January and caused more than 15 metres of erosion on some parts of the beach.

Tubes of nappy rash cream, used bandages, car parts and asbestos were among the items discovered washing into the sea from mounds of household rubbish at the site, just north of Corroba Oval. 

For an exemption to apply the storm must be declared a natural disaster by the Office of Emergency Management.

A Hunter Water spokeswoman said the exemption of the Section 88 Waste Levy was applied for to “help ease the financial burden” of cleaning up the mess.

But the EPA’s spokeswoman said the watchdog did not have the “authority to grant discretionary exemptions from the requirement to pay the waste levy for waste arising from a natural disaster”.

“The Office of Emergency Management is the relevant body to determine whether an event such as the erosion event at Stockton Beach is a natural disaster,” she said.

“As the erosion event at Stockton Beach was not declared a natural disaster by the Office of Emergency Management, the EPA was unable to grant an exemption in this instance.”

More than 8000 tonnes of garbage has been dug up from the old council landfill on Hunter Water land and is being stockpiled on Stockton beach awaiting disposal.

It’s estimated the waste levy, charged at tips and landfill sites, will add more than $1 million to the cost of the $3 million clean-up operation.

The EPA’s spokeswoman said the levy was apportioned to NSW government consolidated revenue and used to support essential services like schools, hospitals and environmental programs.

“The levy funds the NSW Government’s $802 million Waste Less, Recycle More initiative (2012 to 2021) which is transforming waste and recycling in NSW,” she said.

Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said council could not exempt Hunter Water paying the tip fee because the bill would then be left for ratepayers. 

“What should happen is the EPA should waive the waste levy,” she said. 

“It’s incredulous for a NSW government agency to effectively require Hunter Water which is a wholly owned government corporation, to pay the fee, especially when the coastal erosion at Stockton was caused by the Port of Newcastle construction of the harbour entrance breakwaters.”

Critics say the levy is being used to prop up government coffers and has resulted in NSW waste operators trucking mountains of landfill to Queensland. Each week hundreds of trucks, weighed down with about 40 tonnes of waste each, leave NSW for landfills in south-east Queensland.

There is no waste levy in Queensland, after Campbell Newman’s government scrapped it in 2012, and aggressive price cutting by Queensland tip operators has driven landfill costs to below $20 per tonne.

In NSW, the levy is $138.20 per tonne of rubbish, taking the cost of landfill to $275 a tonne at Newcastle City Council’s Summerhill Waste Management Centre, $350 a tonne at Maitland’s Mt Vincent Road Waste Management Centre and $340 a tonne at Lake Macquarie’s Awaba tip.

The interstate waste trade is costing NSW millions of dollars in lost revenue, discouraging recycling and adding more trucks to the busy Pacific Highway.

But operators say they have no choice but to take the waste to Queensland landfill, or their businesses would not survive.

Hunter Water’s spokeswoman said the authority was “finalising its options for the safe and appropriate disposal” of the waste on Stockton beach. 

“We hope to have decision on this by early June,” she said.

Workers have excavated up to four-metres deep and 10 metres behind the high-tide mark. About 3000 tonnes of sand was brought in to re-fill parts of the coastline. 

The next phase of work involves installing large sand containers to protect the site from further erosion.

“From day one, safety has been our main priority at Stockton,” she said.

“Hunter Water crews regularly inspect and maintain the geo-fabric, which is covering the stockpile of around 8000 tonnes of material on site, to ensure there is no environmental or public health risk.”