Chris Dobney & Hans Lovejoy
Byron Environment Centre (BEC) and a prominent council watcher say their calls for information about possible radioactive dust pollution during excavation at the Mercato shopping mall site in Byron Bay are falling on deaf ears.
In November last year, Jo Faith followed a truck full of spoil from the excavations at the Mercato site, which she said was only partially covered with a tarp and had the potential to spread radioactive dust ‘from Byron Bay to Queensland’, where she believes the fill was destined to be tipped.
Then, earlier this year, BEC’s John Lazarus noticed two men taking Geiger counter readings in Railway Park.
As revealed by Echonetdaily in 2014, the Mercato development is being built on the site of a former mineral sands mill, and some of the radioactive tailings were buried at the site when the (then) Byron Plaza shopping centre was built in the 1980s.
But despite concerns expressed by local traders four years ago about their potential for exposure to radioactive dust during excavations, Byron Council focused instead on Mercato’s ‘Green Star rating’.
Mayor Simon Richardson told reporters at the time, ‘We are lucky the proponents agreed to consider community concerns – a great position for developer to start with. Council and the proponents worked together to get a five-star Green Star building, the only one in regional Australia: a building with an art gallery and public spaces.’
EPA wipes its hands
After following that truck out of town, Ms Faith began inquiring from the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) what protocols should be followed in the disposal of excavated material that might contain heightened levels of radioactivity.
Last week, after what she said were ‘many, many attempts’ to elicit a written response, she finally received a two-line email from the EPA.
‘The EPA is aware of the concerns raised in relation to this development, however Byron Shire Council is the appropriate regulatory authority for this matter. Any matters relating to worker safety should be directed to Safework NSW,’ it read.
When Mr Lazarus encountered the men with the Geiger counters, they told him that readings in Railway Park were ‘normal’ but those in Butler Street Reserve were ‘increased’.
Mr Lazarus told Echonetdaily he thought the men were most likely contractors working for Azzura, the Mercato developer, as ‘they would be responsible for checking their own site’.
‘I believe the radiated waste would have to go to a separate facility to a normal waste facility, so I suspect that, if there was polluted waste there, that’s gone to one facility and the other soil they’d taken out that wasn’t polluted, which we believe was lower down, has gone to separate facility.’
‘If they had Geiger counters running over that site they should’ve known what was polluted and what wasn’t… and I’m of the opinion that Council should’ve had a DA to remove the polluted waste, and I’ve never seen any,’ he said.
No response to GIPA request
Mr Lazarus approached Council last month under the GIPA (freedom of information) Act, requesting access to their reports, radiation readings and collected data from all the sites tested, plus confirmation of the destination of suspected radioactive fill removed from the site as well as the destination of fill not suspected of being radiated
According to paragraph 7.5 of the act, agencies ‘must make a decision, and notify the applicant of it, within 20 working days’.
This time can be extended by 10 to 15 days where consultation with a third party is required or information must be retrieved from archived records. The decision can also be extended by agreement with the applicant.
But despite the original request being lodged with acting GM Mark Arnold on March 16, Mr Lazarus had received no response by Friday, April 20, some five weeks later.
The Echo approached Council regarding the matter and was told, ‘The request for information was in fact an “informal request” and there are no statutory timeframes for informal requests.
Staff are however currently reviewing Mr Lazarus’ request and will be in touch shortly.
People who make a formal request under the GIPA Act and pay the required $30.00 application fee do have their requests processed within the appropriate timeframes of 20 days or, if permission needs to be sourced from the owner of the information, the required timeframe is extended to 30 – 45 days.
Mr Lazarus says he has now been advised by Mr Arnold that he has ‘requested staff to provide me with an update on the status of your GIPA Application and will advise further when I receive that update’.
We also emailed list of questions to Mercato, through its PR spokesperson but after 24 hours have yet to receive a response.
A spokesperson for the Mercato development confirmed with The Echo that a specific DA was required for the radioactive waste extraction and removal and said all the terms of this DA were complied with.
They said, ‘The builder complied with the EPA and the requirements of Byron Shire Council DA in every aspect. The builder was diligent in monitoring this and responding as required. Appropriately qualified, independent scientists and technicians were onsite to oversee the work.’
‘The field screening showed generally very low results across the entire excavation site, with limited areas of exceedances of several times the residential criteria of 0.7 µSv/hr (micro-Sieverts per hour).’
The Echo all also asked, ‘Were trucks monitored leaving the site and what steps were taken to prevent toxic tailings or polluted soil becoming windborne?
The Mercato spokesperson replied, ‘A low percentage radioactive material was found to a depth of 1.2 metres. This material was removed from the site in covered trucks and transported to an approved site in QLD. The site was excavated to a depth of approximately seven metres. The bulk of the excavated soil, which was natural sand, was disposed of for beneficial reuse under a specific NSW EPA resource recovery order.’