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Byron Shire
September 28, 2023

Richmond Valley Council looks at thermal waste to energy

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Richmond Valley Councillor Jill Lyons. ‘I have been contacted by numerous residents, both locally and from neighbouring councils, who are expressing their concerns with the idea of having an industry such as this in our backyard.’

Since Richmond Valley Council announced almost two weeks ago that they were ‘working towards long-term waste solutions’, those solutions have come to light as being a thermal waste to energy project.

At last night’s Council meeting, councillors looked at a recommendation that Council receives and notes the information on the next steps to seek Alternate Waste Treatment solutions for landfill and recyclable waste streams for councils along the North Coast and the recently announced NSW Energy from Waste Infrastructure Plan.

The report said that Richmond Valley Council has been working with the other 12 councils along the North Coast from the Tweed to the Mid-Coast Council area, supported by the Department of Regional NSW, to prepare the North Coast Region Waste Investment Report.

The report provides the information base for councils to test the market for Alternate Waste Treatment solutions for all waste streams that are environmentally, economically and socially acceptable to the North Coast communities.

A market sounding process is currently being prepared to issue to the market for alternate waste treatment solutions for landfill and recyclable waste streams by November 2021.

The NSW Government has released a new Energy from Waste Infrastructure Plan to support the NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041. The Plan recognises that thermal treatment of waste will form part of the future solution for managing residual waste in NSW, providing an opportunity to replace less environmentally sound energy sources, such as coal-fired power stations, and avoid methane emissions from landfill. It identifies four priority areas where future energy recovery facilities may be located in NSW, including the Richmond Valley Regional Jobs Precinct.

Some community opposition

During public access, resident Liz Stops spoke about her opposition to the project.

Ms Stops said the possibility of an incinerator being commissioned for the Richmond Valley first came to her notice when a trip to Japan by various members of Council to look at facilities there, was reported at the general meeting in March 2019. ‘In April 2019, I asked some questions about the incineration process. Following this in 2020, I had the opportunity to attend a webinar on waste incineration, that was hosted by the National toxics network.

Ms Stops said her quest for facts found that there were two broad areas surrounding an incinerator that are extremely alarming. ‘There’s not time in five minutes public access to detail everything, but I’d like to share some pertinent information.

Linear and circular technology

‘Incineration is part of linear technology, where the end product of the production cycle is waste.

‘What we should be aiming for is circular technology where the end product of one cycle of production feeds into the next production cycle.

‘There was an article in The Echo yesterday that told the story of Northern Rivers resident Brendan Lo, who initiated a business producing underwear made out of fabric derived from polyethylene terephthalate, PET, the stuff that drink bottles are made from. He found that you can recycle PT into a high-performance fibre, a synthetic that performs better than a natural fibre for this purpose.

‘This is an example of an innovative solution to a persistent waste problem. Three to five four times more energy can be saved by a combination of reuse, recycling and composting compared to incineration. Redirecting the embodied energy and PET bottles made further use of the fossil fuels from which the heat is derived and avoided consuming the energy required to grow and process cotton.

‘No matter how efficient an incinerator is, it will still be a source of unintentional persistent organic pollutants or UPOPs. Nanoparticles come into this category and so small and are efficiently captured by air pollution control devices. They can travel long distances and penetrate deep into the lungs.

Nanoparticles including dioxins

Ms Stops said nanoparticles from incinerators contain many harmful substances including dioxins.

‘This is just a fraction of the information I learned. Part of RVC’s environmental charter states that Council shall exercise due consideration for environmental impacts when planning council works.

‘I’m sure that council wants what is best for the community and are asking you to seek input from scientists who know the chemistry have studied existing facilities, and are aware of the pitfalls and dangers of incineration. There may be more long term jobs created for the Northern Rivers by promoting innovation and reuse and recycling and developing a circular economy.

‘The health of Richmond Valley residents, the air we breathe, and our environment will be better protected.’

General Manager anticipated questions

RVC General Manager Vaughan Macdonald said he had prepared some information in anticipation of questions on the subject.

‘We’ve been looking into this since at least March 2019, when that report was brought to Council. I suppose firstly, the word incinerator isn’t quite accurate. The way they are today, they’re actually high tech thermal waste facilities.

‘I think “incinerators” plays on memories of what used to be in backyards many years ago. But those facilities do treat waste, and at very high temperatures, and have sophisticated technology to ensure that any emissions released do comply with the required standards.

‘Council has been investigating a wide range of waste management solutions, and we’ve been doing that and communicating to our community. Back to 2019 and beyond – obviously, we’ve got a waste strategy and other work that’s happening. And obviously, more recently, it’s the north coast waste investment report that was done.

‘The government announcement, that’s obviously prompted the need for a report to update council, identifies that energy from waste facilities can happen here doesn’t necessarily mean they will. But they can happen here – Goulburn, Lithgow and Parkes – but for that to happen, they will be required to go through the usual development planning processes, including environmental impact studies, which will obviously include further opportunities for community consultation and feedback as any development does. So we have identified that there’s clearly a need for more information on how these facilities work. And we’ll certainly be looking to provide that as we look at waste in general.

Council gave Ms Stops ample time to ask questions and Mr Macdonald was able to respond – the entire exchange is available on the RVC Facebook page. 

Cr Jill Lyons spoke to the chamber about her concerns about any possible facility of this type in the area.

Cr Lyons contacted by numerous residents

‘Since this press release went public, I have been contacted by numerous residents, both locally and from neighbouring councils, who are expressing their concerns with the idea of having an industry such as this in our backyard. A common saying was if it’s not good enough for Sydney, why should we accept this industry in our neighbourhood?

‘There is some concern of increase in truck presence across the Northern Rivers and particularly in the Richmond Valley-Casino road systems. Cr Lyons said she is concerned about the impacts this will have on the roads and safety aspects of locals and visitors.

‘This alternative form of waste disposal is not a solution that works in our favour in regard to climate change, as huge amounts of carbon are emitted from those facilities.

‘Globally the move is away from this technology and facilities are shutting down. In fact, the EU has recently removed or subsidies for this industry and the US is apparently considering the options, is this really an option for us to be considering?’

Four tonnes of waste incinerated = one tonne of hazardous waste

‘Did you know that for over four tonnes of waste incinerated, one tonne of hazardous waste is left for council to dispose of, or the contractor of the facility?

‘This waste is known as fly ash and is highly hazardous due to the burning of plastics in particular. The high incineration actually condenses the toxins found in plastic.

‘So, bearing this in mind where does where would Council plan to build a landfill site, especially for this waste to be taken to?

‘I noted in a reply to a question, asked by Liz Stops at a council meeting on the 16th of April 2019, as to the disposal of fly ash, and concrete is one such option.

‘From my understanding, it will only spread the toxins found in the hazardous waste across various sites, as concrete, as we know, does break down over time.

‘There are also questions being asked of just who the 12 counsellors originally involved in this project were, and which had decided to step away. Does Council know the reasons as to why they did this?

Another valid question is who is funding the project in the short term, and once into the long term?

Another facility in Queensland

Is Council aware that Ipswich just over the border, is also considering building a similar facility, and what are the potential impacts for us?

Cr Lyons said that the Northern Rivers prides itself on its clean, green image. ‘This is potentially at risk of being lost due to the high levels of dioxins. In fact, Japan leach was having the highest concentrations of dioxins. Dioxins are known to be absorbed into the fats of all living creatures including people and livestock.

‘Our beef industry and our status as the beef capital could possibly be at risk if we start exporting beef, and tests show this chemical is actually in our beef.

What does Council know out the contracts that are usually binding for 20 to 30 years on average – what will Council do if they fail to meet the designated quota and subsequently fined? This is a risk and needs to be considered carefully before any agreement is signed.

Community feels left out of the conversation

Cr Lyons also said that the community feels they have been left out of the conversation. ‘They feel no community consultation has been done. And there is a concern that it might be a done deal due to our designation as a job precinct. Community understanding, community involvement at a grassroots level is necessary, especially as it will be ratepayers money that I presume will help maintain this facility.

Cr Lyons also said that selling points of “new jobs” it’s not quite valid – yes in the building phase, but once these facilities are established, they are usually run by computers.

‘I would like to ask councillors to consider inviting representatives from the National Toxics Network to attend a council information session, to give us all an insight into this waste to energy business. It’s important to know so that we can all make an informed decision knowing the potential risks we may be exposed to, and I’m more than happy to set up such a meeting.

For these reasons, and on behalf of the community, I feel I can’t vote for the recommendation at this stage until we have further information. We’ve heard from experts in regard to the possible negative impacts of this industry.’

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  1. Oh dear,
    If you just expect the very worse of local government decisions , you will never be disappointed !
    Anyhow, I suppose it is just about impossible to convince the Neanderthals, that burning anything, in this end of the World context, is just not a viable solution.
    This situation is analogous to those idiots out there burning the environment to prevent fires.
    Shame, shame, shame ; …..after the revolution things will be different ! G”)

    • We have had those idiots around here. Barkers Vale way. Started as hazard reduction then became a bushfire, over 100 hectares burnt “under control” until rain put it out! Good ol’ boys.


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