Responding to incidents

After the rains

Clean-up crews collect and remove debris from the riverWhen the 2021 March floods created debris and waste across NSW, the EPA quickly formed response teams for the massive recovery and clean-up efforts.

The teams were challenged again when record-breaking rain lashed the State in February and March 2022, putting communities under water in northern NSW and along the Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers.

Manager of our Flood Programs team, Martin Puddey, is clear that this is part of the reality of climate change. ‘We need to be prepared for more flood events like this,’ he says.

Flood waste and debris includes natural hazards – trees and animal carcasses – and man-made ones such as chemical containers, plastics, gas bottles, fridges, water tanks, building parts, tyres and fuel.

What have the flood recovery teams been doing?

crane arm lifting debris off a boatShoreline and land-based clean-ups are being managed differently. For the debris washed onto shorelines and into rivers, the EPA has engaged specialist contractors whose crews remove waste using boats, cranes, barges, 4WD vehicles and hand picking. Between April 2021 and May 2022 we removed more than 11,000 cubic metres of flood debris from shorelines and waterways – the equivalent of 137 semitrailer loads.

Of this, more than 8,500 cubic metres was removed from beaches on the Central and Mid North Coast, and the Hawkesbury River and surrounds. A further 2,500 cubic metres of debris was cleared from the north of the state, including the beaches around Ballina, Cabbage Tree Island and the Northern Rivers.

We removed more than 11,000 cubic metres of flood debris from shorelines and waterways – the equivalent of 137 semitrailer loads.

We try to re-use or recycle as much collected flood debris as possible rather than have it go to landfill. The first step is to sort debris at our waste collection areas. Natural debris, such as logs, can be mulched and returned to local councils and land management groups for community landscaping. Some man-made items are also spared a one-way ticket to the landfill: for example, gas cylinders still in good repair are sent back to their manufacturers to be refurbished and re-used.

Underwater debris is a navigational hazard that can damage boats and hurt swimmers and other recreational water users.

It ranges from green waste to objects as large as a Return and Earn reverse-vending machine – a 20-foot shipping container! (See page 87.) Contractors find these items with sonar scanning then the shoreline team removes them. Sometimes a combination of crane barges, punts and commercial divers using underwater chainsaws is needed to remove trees at a safe level below the surface. This complex work is done in consultation with other agencies such as Transport for NSW, Maritime and Department of Primary Industries – Fisheries. Advice from these agencies helps balance the need to remove navigational and safety risks against the loss of aquatic habitat.

For the land-based clean-ups, we’ve concentrated first on public land with the help of a land management consultant. We’ve been working through council reserves and parks to remove the man-made debris.

We’re also helping the community

Local councils bear the weight of most of the clean-up. We’re talking to local councils about what they need and how we can help. We first directed help to councils with significant reports of flood debris. The clean-up then continued in other flood-impacted local government areas.

After the initial focus on public land, the land-based program expanded in July 2022 to include the clean-up of eligible large or hazardous man-made debris on private land across flood-affected communities.

This helped those landowners without the skills, capacity, specialist equipment or money needed to remove flood waste and debris.

Helping communities at flood recovery centres

After the floods in March and April 2022 we teamed up with other government agencies to support affected communities.

We stationed our staff at flood recovery centres set up to support the community with accommodation, health services, financial assistance and advice.

Residents could visit the centres in person and speak to government agency representatives directly. Most of their questions to the EPA were about the clean-up process and asbestos.

Our staff also worked at Recovery Coordination Centres as liaison officers to coordinate flood recovery efforts quickly and effectively. At these centres, government agencies worked together as one team and were able to respond to any matter.  

Clean-up at Broadwater

Debris stacked outside buildings showing the flood level halfway up the walls.

Broadwater is a small town in the Northern Rivers region of NSW. When the entire town went under water, two large diesel storage tanks and waste oil from local industries mixed with the floodwater, polluting homes and soil.

We engaged a specialist environmental consultant, GHD, to manage the clean-up and help residents directly.

24 homes were professionally cleaned using biodegradable detergent.

We also conducted a rigorous soil sampling program and worked with residents to develop and implement action plans to remediate soils. Many residents have thanked us for our efforts.

Cabbage Tree Island clean-up

In March 2022 we supported the Cabbage Tree Island community to clean-up after the floods. The residents warmly welcomed the clean-up crews who also engaged local cultural knowledge holders to guide the work that was carried out. This involvement helped the community that had endured repeated floods.

Saving Ernie

A crane lifting a waterlogged reverse-vending machine nicknamed Ernie out of the riverIn March 2022 rising floodwater in the northern NSW town of Murwillumbah wrought havoc on the town’s reverse-vending machine, nicknamed‘Ernie’.

Ernie was part of the EPA’s Return and Earn recycling program. He was a hefty piece of infrastructure – basically a fitted-out shipping container.

But the water’s power split Ernie apart and swept his pieces away like toy boats.

Half of him was found 5 km downriver near the local sugar mill while the other half ended up 10 km away in another village. The two pieces were completely submerged, posing a hazard to river users.

Salvaging Ernie was a complex operation, involving many agencies. First his pieces had to be found – no easy task. Then they were raised to the surface with special flotation devices. Finally, a huge crane winched them from the water. Sadly, Ernie was too damaged to repair. His raw materials will be re-used and recycled.

A new reverse-vending machine has now taken his place. The people of Murwillumbah can once again earn money while helping the environment. n

The Wickham fire

fire truck attends a blazing buildingOn 1 March 2022 a large fire broke out at a storage facility in the inner Newcastle suburb of Wickham, on Awabakal Country.

The roofs of the burning buildings contained asbestos, which the smoke plume carried to neighbouring areas. As a result, hundreds of nearby homes and businesses had to be evacuated.

An emergency operations centre was established the day after the fire. It brought together representatives from the EPA, NSW Police, Fire & Rescue NSW (FRNSW), Public Works Advisory, NSW Health, Hazmat Services and the City of Newcastle. The key agencies quickly mobilised and started the huge task of cleaning up homes and public areas.

The EPA received over 400 reports related to this fire through Environment Line.

‘A key concern residents had was about asbestos possibly contaminating their homes and yards and what impact that might have on them,’ said Senior Engagement Officer Jamie Ferguson. ‘All agencies worked together to get evacuated residents back home as quickly as possible and then we focused on the homes most affected.’

Air monitoring was carried out daily in areas where asbestos was being removed. Reassuringly, there were no detections of asbestos fibres in the air above normal background levels.

Within two weeks of the fire more than 130 households had been given the all-clear to return home.

With the help of other key agencies, we hosted community drop-in sessions where residents were invited to ask questions and share their concerns. It was a great way to keep the community up to date about the clean-up efforts. We also distributed flyers to over 3,500 properties.

We spoke with environmental scientists, doctors and the local health district authorities to help with our health messaging and ease residents’ minds about the health risks.

Bushfire recovery programs

bright green regrowth of vegetation amongst blackened tree trunksWe’ve delivered five major programs to help communities recover from the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires.

These programs, the majority of which are now nearing completion, have given sustained support for recovery and clean-up to local councils, public land managers and Local Aboriginal Land Councils.

  • The Green Waste Clean-up and Processing Program targets bushfire-generated green waste, including fallen trees and branches. In 2021–22 this program provided $25.2 million.
  • The Aboriginal Lands Bushfire Recovery Program helps with the clean-up of bushfire-generated waste and deterrence of illegal dumping. This program is a partnership between the EPA, Public Works Advisory and Local Aboriginal Land Councils. Funding has been provided in two rounds, going to nine Local Aboriginal Land Councils in the first round and 19 in the second round. In 2021–22 this program funded works to the value of $4.1 million.
  • The Bushfire Dumping Program provides funds to public land managers to deal with dumped bushfire waste, now and in the future. In 2021–22 grants totalled $1.1million.
  • The Bushfire Recovery Program for Council Landfills helps ensure that councils are not disadvantaged by accepting bushfire waste for disposal at their landfill. It also provides funding to improve landfill facilities. In 2021–22 grants totalled $3.9 million.
  • The FenceCycle Program helps with the collection and recycling of the metal components of burnt rural fencing. This program has provided $989,000 so far.

These programs are funded by either the NSW Government or the joint Commonwealth–State Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.