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A Great Day for the Shire
Timetable set for Sydney to stop rubbishing us

MONDAY 4TH SEPTEMBER 2000 slipped by almost unnoticed by a Shire caught up in Olympics euphoria.

Yet on that day, Sydney's Waste Service signed a contract with our Shire to wind down the dumping of much of Sydney's waste into our suburb of Lucas Heights.

"Exciting for all residents, especially those in the Menai area," declared Mayor Ken McDonell at the signing. But few were taking notice of -
  • Complete closure of this largest-capacity tip in Australia, by 2024;

  • Hand-over to the Shire of 124 hectares of bushland previously intended for huge expansion of the tip;

  • Progressive conversion of tip areas to "the Shire's greatest concentration of new sports facilities [and] walking tracks";

  • Reduction by 40 per cent of tonnages currently going to the tip each year.

No longer the Shire's "backyard"

"It's a great result! A timetable for ending Sydney's long abuse of Lucas Heights as Sutherland Shire's 'backyard' where the garbage of 23 councils has been dumped for decades," said Councillor Jenni Gormley, who chairs Council's Waste Committee.

"No part of the Shire is its backyard - certainly not this area, which was wonderful bushland to the Gandangarra Aborigines, and it's a wildflower paradise this spring.

"It's disgraceful that all kinds of waste materials have been dumped in the Shire since the 1950s, as Sydney's population has multiplied four times over.

"Most dangerous is the radioactive waste dumped after the Reactor started up in 1958, and though that practice was stopped in 1968, the waste is still there in what's called the Little Forest Burial Ground.

"Not far from it are three other noxious dumping sites: for nightsoil and sludge (1965-80); for liquid toxic materials termed the Industrial Waste Collection (1968-76); and for putrescible materials tipped into Harrington's abandoned clay quarry (1987). So there are four trouble spots in urgent need of remediation, chiefly by the Federal Government, but with some State involvement."

After the Megatip victory

The September 4th contract has been conceded grudgingly by the Waste Service nearly 10 years after residents of the Menai area rebelled against a joint Waste Service and State (Greiner) Government proposal to develop the Lucas Heights Tip into a "megatip".

Megatip? A bid to expand the (1985) capacity of 15 million cunic metres to a huge 40 million by extending across 124 hectares of bushland.

The 1991 Council and the recently formed Shire Environment Centre were to play leading roles in rallying residents to oppose the Waste Service. Big protest meetings were held at Illawong, Lucas Heights, Menai, Woronora and Sutherland - the latter cramming 1100 people into the Entertainment Centre - and they voted unanimously against the Megatip.

On September 24th 1992 the Premier (with an election looming) announced abandonment of the proposal - and, next morning, jubilant Shire residents gathered spontaneously in front of the Council Chambers to celebrate

Moves to undermine the victory

But strong forces began lobbying to undo the Shire's victory: the Waste Service itself, waste carriers with fleets of 26-wheeler trucks, councils that wanted to get rid of rubbish but not start tips of their own, and politicians in both major parties who were responsive to these lobbies. The Shire had reason to feel alarmed!

Liberal Minister Chris Hartcher declared at the end of 1992 that waste "is the most serious problem that confronts our community today. With pressure on Sutherland Council mounting, it moved to head off costly litigation by which the Waste Service aimed to increase tonnages. It proposed a mediation process and this was agreed to by a new Labor Government (1993).

The Shire fights back

Shire reps from Council and Environment Centre argued before a Parliamentary Inquiry in March 1993 for a powerful Sydney-wide campaign to educate the public and industry in waste reduction.

But neither side of politics had the stomach for a campaign that would have taken on the packaging industry, which produces half of Sydney's waste stream, and the transport giants which profit from more waste, not less.

Long, tortuous mediation process

The Shire accepted a respected mediation commissioner, John Woodward. Its own advocate, Planning Director Keith Lund, confronted Waste Service's General Manager, John Cook.

Woodward pushed the mediation to what seemed to be a conclusion in his November 1996 Report, A Proposal for Future Use of Lands at Lucas Heights.

Little could he have thought that its terms - and its translation into a Development Application, EIS and Contract - would be haggled over for four more years!

"Haggled" is not unkind, as the Waste Service strove for advantages at the expense of the Shire. Sceptical residents felt the Service was stonewalling in the hope that a change of government would bring it high-level support. But the reigning Carr Government won the March 1999 election and looked entrenched. Though it showed no disposition to tackle the packaging industry and waste carriers, it had taken to heart the strength of Shire opposition to the Megatip and did not wish to incur more of the same.

Still, the haggling persisted into year 2000, prompting rumours that the Waste Service and even the Environment Protection Authority were secretly negotiating to revive the Megatip plan ( Leader , 29.6.00). But denial came swiftly and the Waste Service, confronting a Council determined not to give ground, grudgingly consented at last to sign the contract offered by Council.

Terms of the contract

Woodward's Report distinguished three areas.
  • The Old Tip , termed Lucas Heights No.1 , 104 hectares, to be developed in stages over 10 years as a huge multi-purpose sport and recreation centre, including an 18-hole golf course.

  • The Existing Tip , termed Lucas Heights Waste Management Centre , 166 hectares, will see a halving of the 23 councils now dumping on it, reduction of annual tonnage dumped from just under one million to 575 000, development of a major green processing operation, and progressive rehabilitation of the whole area to open parkland. The Tip will close completely in 2024. (Conceded to Waste Service: an additional 8mt of waste.)

  • The Conservation Area , so termed, 124 hectares, this being the bushland previously intended as site of the (defeated) Megatip. It is now to be handed over to Council at no cost and will be rezoned 7(b) Environmental Protection/Bushland - with rehabilitation for passive recreation to follow, e.g. bushwalking. Eventually, it is hoped, the area will be so successfully rehabilitated as to be gazetted as national park.

Following up the contract

The contract now signed, several outstanding questions need answers.
  1. Waste Service's past commitment to pay Sutherland Council a penalty $1.00 per tonne of waste, when the agreed annual 575,000 tonnes is exceeded is absurdly low. Very much more would have to be paid to send it to any other tip. Will Council now make a strong case for asking $30.00 per tonne?

  2. Has the yearly average of tipped waste increased in recent years from the consensual 1 million to 1.2 million tonnes? Totals for 1997, 1998, 1999 are needed from Waste Service in order to see whether increases will mean an earlier closure date than 2024.

  3. How long will the Shire be able to continue disposing of its waste in the Lucas Heights Tip? Certainly till 2024, but only if the contracted rate of 575,000 tonnes p.a. is maintained. If exceeded, however, the tip's closure will be earlier. So the Shire's interest lies in the rate being maintained, because the cost to our ratepayers of sending our waste elsewhere is sure to be higher. (The cost is likely to be double.)

"Implementation of the contract's conditions is vital," says Clr Jenni Gormley, "and Council has set up a watchdog committee to see to that. But an independent auditing process would be the best way to avoid disputes over quantities.

"We must press State Government for an ongoing powerful campaign to educate the community and, even moreso, industry in reducing waste. And we must step up pressure on Federal and State Government to resolve issues associated with the noxious dumps (radioactive, IWC, Harrington's, nightsoil). Of immediate urgency is the need to remediate a plume of pollution which is moving from IWC and Harrington's into the Conservation Area.

"Beyond that, both community and industry can be made aware that the very notion of waste is wrong - that everything now discarded should be seen as a recoverable resource that can be reprocessed for use again."