‘Putrid, sour and rancid’: Cheese company fined over waste spill into creek

A cheese-making business that suspects an act of sabotage caused putrid whey and wastewater to run from its factory into a Melbourne creek has been convicted and fined $8060 over the environmental hazard.

People walking along Yuroke Creek in Broadmeadows noticed a stench “potent like sewage or rotting milk and nauseating” over the first weekend of October 2018. Inspectors from the EPA and Melbourne Water followed the stream of white, fatty liquid back to the nearby Fresh Cheese Company factory.

Samples taken from the creek showed the wastewater had high levels of ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus, the County Court heard, and experts believed the pollution would have damaged vegetation in the creek and killed fish and aquatic animals.

A Melbourne Water officer at the creek described the odour as “putrid, sour and rancid” and wrote it made him gag, Judge David Brookes said.

Judge Brookes on Tuesday convicted and fined Fresh Cheese Company after it pleaded guilty to one charge of permitting an environmental hazard. The maximum penalty for the charge is $386,000.

Despite accepting legal responsibility, the company said it believed a vandal caused the discharge, as it reported a burglary that weekend and suspected a saboteur turned off the power switch to a machine that pumped waste liquid into a holding tank.

When the pump was turned off, the waste liquid spilled into stormwater drains through an existing hole in the concrete inside the factory, the court heard.

Judge Brookes said Fresh Cheese Company had been at its Riggall Street site for 13 years and had previously reported other break-ins, ball bearings being fired at staff members, vandalism and graffiti, which it believed were carried out by a group of residents who didn’t want the factory in their neighbourhood.

The company’s lawyers told the court last year there was no suggestion Fresh Cheese Company either deliberately or recklessly allowed wastewater to flow into the creek, but had accepted its responsibility for failing to fix the hole in the concrete earlier.

The company had since fixed the hole, ensured staff inspected the pumps daily and had improved security. The company is legally permitted to dispose of by-products from its cheese making and cleaning liquids through sewers.

Prosecutors argued those measures were easy to implement and should have been done much earlier.

Judge Brookes acknowledged the company’s good record, that the COVID-19 pandemic had caused a huge strain on its finances, and that its future was dependent on a multi-million dollar contract with supermarket chain Aldi.

Geoffrey Sharpe, one of the company’s directors, watched the online sentencing hearing but did not speak.

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