‘The first thing we knew … was when it went boom’: Firefighters
The lives of dozens of firefighters were put in jeopardy after warnings were not passed on to frontline crews that one of the state’s biggest e-waste recyclers was dangerously overstocked before the factory erupted into a massive industrial blaze last year.
The incident has sparked a feud between the Environment Protection Authority and Fire Rescue Victoria, with both agencies providing contradictory accounts of what information was shared about safety conditions at MRI e-cycle Solutions before the fire broke out.
Firefighters battle the blaze at e-waste facility MRI E-Cycle on August 9Credit:Chris Hopkins
The environmental watchdog has a been accused of putting the interests of business ahead of the safety of emergency services personnel by failing to shut down the troubled recycling operation despite detecting serious breaches of its licence over nearly a year before the fire.
The Campbellfield premises of MRI were “significantly overstocked” with e-waste and lead-acid, nickel-cadmium and lithium batteries when it caught fire on August 9, 2019. It took 75 firefighters more than a day to extinguish the blaze, which caused explosions that could be heard kilometres away and spread toxic smoke across the northern suburbs.
A senior firefighting source, who asked not to be identified in order to speak about operational matters, said firefighter crews arrived on the scene shortly after 4.30am without critical information about the “fuel load” inside the Sydney Road building.
“The first thing we knew what we were dealing with was when it went boom,” the source said. “We had no idea what we could be really walking into.”
The greatest threat was the unknown volume of batteries inside the facility, which are prone to explode in contact with fire and water.
Questions remain about whether the EPA had been appropriately regulating the site and if information about the danger it posed was passed on to firefighters by the regulator or FRV command.
MRI was licensed to hold 60 tonnes of e-waste and 20 tonnes of unsorted batteries, but the exact stock level on the day of the fire is unknown as the EPA relied on the company to self-report its licence breaches for nearly a year.
The company first came to the attention of authorities in August 2019 when an inspection revealed the existence of a stockpile “well above” the EPA-licensed limit, and fire services planned for enhanced emergency response because of the increased risk.
The EPA visited the site independently in October that year, ordering an investigation into MRI’s continued violation of safety and environmental regulations. It was the last inspection by the regulator despite MRI self-reporting it was still violating its licence throughout 2020.
In March 2020, EPA ordered the company to stop accepting e-waste and reduce its stockpile.
When the EPA issued a ‘show cause’ notice threatening to suspend or revoke MRI’s licence in July 2020, the company claimed it had stopped accepting e-waste.
Two senior fire fighters told The Age they had had similar experiences with the EPA in the past and described the organisation as “dysfunctional”. They claimed it fails to pass on essential intelligence.
One claimed it failed to adequately regulate MRI or crackdown on the known rogue operator.
“They’ve got their priorities wrong. They seemed more concerned about working with business, with polluters, as opposed to their core business which is supposed to be looking after the Victorian community and the environment,” he said.
“If they do identify anything there’s these never ending deadlines [given to operators] about what they have to do.”
According to EPA policy: “The goal of the compliance activity is not to close a business but to bring the business into compliance – if it can be.”
The EPA suspended MRI’s licence in November 2020 — three months after the factory was destroyed but said “it did not consider the fire” when taking that action.
Competing accounts of how information about the risk posed by the site was managed has sparked a dispute between the EPA and FRV command, which has raised questions about which agency was responsible for failing to pass on critical information to frontline firefighters.
Both agencies agree that the EPA provided an update about conditions at MRI at some point during meetings in 2020 of the joint Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce, which was formed to crack down on high-risk operators.
“EPA did share the information it held about stock levels at MRI with FRV at regular meetings held monthly throughout 2020. I will not reveal the exact nature of these meetings or discussions particularly when there is a live investigation involved,” EPA acting chief executive Mark Rossiter said.
In response, FRV command said the regulator provided a “verbal update” about “ongoing compliance issues at this site” at one meeting in June 2020 but noted the EPA holds compliance records for individual sites.
FRV command would not comment on whether it believed the briefing was adequate or whether it has provided the most up-to-date information available to operational firefighters.
Relations between the EPA and FRV have been strained for years amid allegations the regulator has failed to crack down on rogue operators in the waste industry or share information about the toxins firefighters have been exposed to. There has been at least 100 fires at waste and recycling facilities and illegal dumps since July 2017.
MRI declined to comment on conditions in the factory before the fire or its interactions with the regulator. “We confirm that MRI have complied with all the EPA directives in terms of site management post the event,” manager Will Le Messurier said.
Until this week, MRI was still promoting itself as holding a valid EPA licence. The company removed the branding after being contacted by The Age.
Business records show MRI has recently changed its business address to a location in Sydney.
A spokesman for the New South Wales EPA said it was currently assessing the company’s waste storage and processing activities to “determine if an environment protection licence is required”.
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