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Burning questions for Cleanaway’s waste-to-energy facility

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Pam Kiriakidis
Pam Kiriakidis
Pam Kiriakidis has worked as a journalist at the North Central Review since 2022, with a particular focus on the City of Whittlesea and stories for the Whittlesea Review. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Media and Communications majoring in journalism and focuses on politics, community, and health with the occasional niche sports story finding its way in front of her.

Wollert residents are calling for a halt to a proposed facility that would process more than 380,000 tonnes of waste material, which otherwise would be sent to landfill, into energy.

Proposed by Cleanaway Operations, the Melbourne Energy and Resource Centre (MERC) will be located on 510 Summerhill Road, Wollert.

The project requires a development licence under the Environment Protection Act, which is an application currently lodged with the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

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Earlier this year, EPA received 763 submissions via an online portal, with 752 objecting the proposal.

Last month, EPA held its second Wollert community conference, which saw many concerned residents from in and around Wollert asking questions regarding the site’s location, potential health risks, and the lack of communication about the proposal.

The in-person and online conferences, which were facilitated by an independent moderator who will prepare a conference report, was full of emotion as many residents banded together with burning questions.

Wollert residents are referring to the MERC as an ‘incinerator’.

One resident, Julie Ahmad, who organised a petition demanding the EPA to reject permits for the facility, said she was ‘outraged at the possibility of having an incinerator’ in her backyard.

“Most community members do not know about the incinerator. The purpose of this petition is to educate people and ensure more people understand what will be in their backyard,” she said.

“My concern is that I do not think the EPA have considered the environmental or the long term accumulative health effects. Evidence is freely available from overseas which is being ignored.

“I want the entire proposal scrapped, I don’t want it to go ahead. Wollert is an awful choice. There’s too many disadvantaged people. I haven’t found one person that actually agrees to it, it’s just not okay. Why can’t this be built in Toorak, Kew, or Camberwell?”

However, a Cleanaway spokesperson said the company had conducted extensive community engagement in the local community, including in-person and online information sessions, letterbox drops, and a dedicated webpage and hotline.

“It is the job of the proponent to take the local community on the journey, to educate them, to meaningfully engage and listen to, and address their concerns. Most of all, to be transparent in the community where you need the social licence to operate,” they said.

“A Stakeholder Reference Group has been established to provide a direct link between the project and the community.”

But like some residents at the in-person conference, Ms Ahmad claimed she found out about the facility through a Facebook community page, and has fears over the processes EPA and Cleanaway are taking to consult the community.

“I am outraged the information communicated to us has not been clear. There are hundreds of pages of scientific documents to sift through to find any relevant information,” she said.

“I feel like this whole process is just a ‘tick the box’. This includes having community events like the June 20 [conference], but in end it’s going to be approved anyway.”

Another resident Amina said Wollert was a ‘vulnerable community’ with several residents who moved to Australia not too long ago.

“We’ve got multiple layers of vulnerability within our community, we don’t have representation, we’re not getting the information we need, and we feel that this company [Cleanaway] is coming in and preying on our vulnerability,” she said.

A Cleanaway spokesperson said the MERC presented several social and economic opportunities for local communities, including jobs during construction and ongoing jobs such as expert roles.

“The flexibility of the MERC design allows us to preference the waste hierarchy and accommodate future improvements and innovations in waste management practices as Victoria transitions to a circular economy,” they said.

“We are also exploring apprenticeships and traineeships for a variety of roles through partnerships with local training organisations.”

EPA Manager Permissioning Licences Richard Gerardi said EPA had a number of steps that need to be completed following the conference of interested parties.

“When we assess the application, we look at all the control measures that have been put in place or proposed to be put in place to ensure that they meet best available technology and the relevant stands. There are international standards around this type of technology as well,” he said.

Other residents raised concerns at the in-person conference over the lack of representation from politicians and local government.

A City of Whittlesea spokesperson said Council was not the planning authority for the application and the decision whether to grant a permit rested with the State Government.

“Council officers have provided a submission to the State Government, raising matters for their consideration from a planning, transport, and environmental perspective. Council will continue to work with the State Government to advocate for the best outcomes for our communities,” they said.

A Department of Transport and Planning spokesperson said any proposal would be considered on its merits and every submission will be considered as part of the assessment process.

For more information on the proposal, please visit engage.vic.gov.au/cleanaway-operations-pty-ltd-app024914 and for the petition, please visit www.change.org/p/say-no-to-a-waste-to-energy-incinerator-in-wollert.

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