Lara tip operator abandons site for Whitsundays
Lara tip operator abandons site for Whitsundays By Chris Vedelago & Cameron Houston 1 September 2018 — 4:12pm Larger text size Very large text size
A rogue recycling operator has walked away from one of the state’s worst fire and environmental hazards and avoided a potential $100 million clean-up bill for a mountain of toxic waste left on Geelong’s outskirts.
The repeated refusal by C & D Recycling to pay a $307,000 tax debt saw the company declared insolvent on Friday by order of the Federal Court.
An environmental and health catastrophe waiting to happen next to Geelong. Photo: Justin McManus
The Age understands the business has no assets even though its operator, David McAuliffe, has taken in millions of dollars in fees amid allegations he ran the “recycling” facility as a de facto rubbish tip.
Mr McAuliffe, who is also facing personal bankruptcy, claims to be broke but is staying on the 28-metre yacht Eagle One moored in Queenscliff Harbour.
The boat, as well as a $880,000 coastal home he occupied until it was sold last year, are owned by a trust controlled by a family member. Advertisement
“It’s not my boat, I need to say that categorically. I divested myself from the trust in 2006, I have no control over it,” Mr McAuliffe told The Age .
“Money hasn’t gone from C & D across to the family. The family has lent money to C & D and we’ve lost money, as have other people.”
Eagle One, a 28 metre yacht owned by David McAuliffe’s family Photo: Simon Schluter
Sources say Mr McAuliffe is planning to sail the Eagle One to Queensland, leaving the toxic mountain behind.
The Lara facility, which has been a persistent problem for regulators since it opened in 2013, was finally barred from accepting new waste last year by court order following serious, repeated breaches of planning, fire safety and environmental laws.
But by then the property had been stacked with 350,000 cubic meters of construction rubbish spread over an area the size of the MCG. It is suspected to be riddled with toxic contaminants, including asbestos and tyres.
The site is rated by a government taskforce as one of the highest-risk waste stockpiles in the state, with emergency services predicting a fire at the property could result in a major environmental and public health catastrophe .
A complete clean-up will cost up to $100 million depending on the seriousness of the contamination.
Emergency services estimate $2 million needs to be spent to make the site compliant with fire safety standards before this summer’s bushfire season.
Responsibility for the mess now rests with the owner of the land, the Australian Sawmilling Company (TASCO), which is a subsidiary of Korean-owned timber group Dongwha.
“We’re trying to solve the problems, we’re paying all these costs,” Dongwha director Hong Lee said. “We are a victim of C & D Recycling.”
The Korean company has Australian assets worth less than the worst-case clean up estimate, and if it fails to meet its obligations, the cost is almost certain to fall on the taxpayer. A preventable mess
Authorities have launched numerous compliance actions against Mr McAuliffe over the past five years, but, in an industry where enforcement of regulations is patchy, he has been able to continue operating.
The Lara site opened in May 2013 under a temporary permit issued by the City of Greater Geelong.
Building materials recyclers are an attractive option for those looking to dispose of waste because they charge substantially less than actual rubbish tips, which attract government fees.
By February 2015, problems had become serious enough for landowner TASCO to take Mr McAuliffe to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, where he was ordered to create a clean-up plan and submit monthly audits to the council.
After failing to meet his obligations, Mr McAuliffe was convicted and fined in the Geelong Magistrates Court.
Then, when the council refused to issue a permanent permit for the business in 2015, Mr McAuliffe appealed to VCAT.
The tribunal heard evidence of Mr McAuliffe’s history of defying regulators and two members made a site inspection, where waste was stacked in piles up to 15 metres in contravention of a 9-metre height restriction.
It was also noted there was already a “gross excessive quantity of materials” that could take a year to reduce.
VCAT granted Mr McAuliffe a permit on its “merits”, with conditions that included a ban on accepting new materials until the stockpiles were reduced.
“The consideration of the persons relating to the land, or the likelihood of compliance with permit conditions are not normally matters to guide the assessment of a planning proposal,” it noted in August 2016.
Just months later, Mr McAuliffe was again convicted and fined in the Geelong Magistrates Court for breaches.
Recycling activity on the site also slowed to a virtual halt.
In 2017, C & D Recycling was slapped with a fire prevention notice from the council, which also began proceedings in VCAT to have the permit cancelled.
The Environment Protection Authority, which had started taking an active role in policing stockpiled sites after the Coolaroo recycling fire in July 2017, also issued pollution abatement and clean-up notices. Final chapter
The endgame began in late 2017 after reports of gross violations of planning, environmental and fire regulations at C & D Reycling prompted VCAT to issue an interim order stopping any material from entering the property.
Mr McAuliffe had meanwhile filed an application to amend his permit, claiming he wanted to burn the waste using a new technology that would necessitate substantial extension periods to fix the breaches.
By March 2018, VCAT had become sceptical about McAuliffe’s intentions and capabilities, suggesting he was using VCAT to stall enforcement action.
But there was now 350,000 cubic metres of waste material on the property, no fire safety measures in place, and C & D Recycling had ceased operating months before.
VCAT decided the “least worst option” available was a staged enforcement process.
“If the permit was cancelled, CDR and Mr McAuliffe (and perhaps TASCO) would simply become insolvent and walk away from the problem, and the ultimate cost of clean-up and disposal would be left to the public purse,” VCAT ruled.
That fear was partially realised on Friday when C & D Recycling was placed in external administration.
Mr McAuliffe argues his recycling business was sabotaged by the council.
“It takes two to negotiate and council is still not interested in negotiating a workable, economically feasible solution,” he told The Age. “What we’ve done there, we’ve done legally.”
Yet the council also recently laid a new criminal charge against Mr McAuliffe, the third such prosecution since 2015.
TASCO has been complying with VCAT’s orders, which involve boosting security, testing the waste for toxins and developing a fire safety plan.
“At every opportunity, the CFA, EPA and the council has opposed this site. VCAT in part has allowed this to happen,” EPA chief executive Nial Finegan said. “The new VCAT orders are good and reflect agency concerns.”
Next is implementing a fire plan and bringing the site into compliance with its planning permit, which is expected to cost $40 million.
Meanwhile, Mr McAuliffe is planning to move to a leased property in the Whitsundays while the Eagle One is rented out — on behalf of the trust — for around $10,000 a day.
“I’m not going to run away and not face my responsibilities. That’s not part of my DNA,” he said.