Bill Speech: Dangerous Goods Amendment (Penalty Reform) Bill 2019

Ms SPENCE (Yuroke) (18:48:02): I am very pleased to speak in support of the Dangerous Goods Amendment (Penalty Reform) Bill 2019. The Dangerous Goods Act 1985, which this bill amends, regulates the handling, transport, manufacture, storage, sale and use of substances that are corrosive, flammable, combustible, explosive, oxidising or water reactive or have other hazardous properties. We have become acutely aware of the damage that can occur from the stockpiling of dangerous goods through the recent fires in Melbourne’s west and north, which I will speak more about shortly, because it is these fires, along with the known sites of current stockpiling and the enormous risk to community safety and the environment that they pose, that have highlighted the need for greater deterrence measures and have indeed led to this bill. Everyone who has spoken on this bill agrees the current situation is not good enough. This bill is a step in addressing those shortfalls, and the provisions in this bill will ensure that those who flout the dangerous goods laws will receive a serious penalty that reflects the seriousness of their contraventions and thereby provides much greater deterrence than is currently the case. The bill creates a new reckless conduct offence for those that engage in reckless conduct relating to dangerous goods that places or may place another person in danger of death. This offence will be the most serious offence under the act, and it will attract a maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment or approximately $620 000 for individuals or $6.6 million for a body corporate. The bill also increases the maximum penalties for offences relating to the storage and transportation of goods, and it increases the fines for failing to comply with the direction of a WorkSafe inspector and for several other offences of failing to comply with duties under the Dangerous Goods Act. I welcome these increased penalties because they provide greater deterrence and because they much better reflect the gravity of the risks posed by these actions. As a result I would hope that we do not see any more chemical stockpiles in our suburbs. I was particularly motivated to speak on this bill as my electorate is one that has these chemical stockpiles. Those who manufacture, store, transport, transfer, sell or use dangerous goods have a duty to keep their workers, the community and the environment safe. The mishandling of these goods poses a real threat to our community, as we saw all too well in the recent fires in Melbourne’s north and west, including West Footscray, Campbellfield and Epping. These fires were caused by the stockpiling of various types of waste, including dangerous goods, and posed a serious risk to community safety and the environment. In August last year the devastating fire at the illegal dump site in Somerville Road in West Footscray brought Melbourne’s western suburbs to a standstill. This was one of the worst industrial blazes in Victoria in decades. It burnt for days, it contaminated the nearby Stony Creek and it forced the closure of local schools and businesses. Then in April a Campbellfield warehouse stockpiled with dangerous chemical waste erupted into another industrial blaze. This saw plumes of black smoke covering the northern suburbs and drifting as far south as Melbourne’s CBD. One hundred and seventy-five firefighters battled this highly toxic fire for days. Buildings and vehicles were turned into fireballs, chemical drums were sent flying above the warehouse and two young workers were hospitalised. One of those workers, who received serious burns, is believed to have been injured when a chemical drum he was carrying exploded. Firefighters reported experiencing illnesses including nosebleeds, lung infections, skin rashes and memory loss after being exposed to the highly toxic smoke and other contaminants that are produced by the burning of chemicals such as solvents, paints and inks. It is completely outrageous that the safety of others is put at such risk by these rogue operators flouting the current laws and creating deathtraps in our suburbs. There have been other fires resulting from waste stockpiles as well as a number of sites at risk of potential fires where stockpiling has occurred. In December last year warehouse properties in Epping and Campbellfield were found to be packed to the rafters with industrial-sized bins and drums containing more than 1.5 million litres of chemical waste. All of these sites pose a very real risk of being the next toxic blaze. The clean-up of these sites is underway, but it is a very challenging task that will take many months. The resources of regulators have been stretched following the discovery of a further three warehouses in Craigieburn. These sites, containing bulk containers of chemical waste, were identified by WorkSafe in March this year, and since that time security guards have been camped out at the site and local firefighters and authorities are permanently on high alert. The sites are less than a kilometre from homes and about 2 kilometres from the Merri Creek, which runs through most of the northern suburbs and feeds into the Yarra River. I am pretty familiar with that particular site because it happens to be very close to an early voting centre in the November 2018 election. There are a number of businesses in that area. There are hundreds of workers, and the safety of all of them and the surrounding environment is at risk due to the actions of these rogue operators. There are 13 sites in Melbourne’s north containing stockpiles of chemical waste. They have no manifests of the dangerous goods stored on the premises, no emergency plans, inadequate fire protection and no spill protection, and the premises are not fit for purpose. The removal of the chemicals will take months, and all of the sites require 24-hour security, atmospheric monitoring and spill containment measures. The Minister for Workplace Safety said in April that she hoped to have legislation before the Parliament by the end of the year to increase penalties. This bill does that, and it delivers on the commitment made by this government to crack down on people who flout dangerous goods laws and to strengthen penalties under the Dangerous Goods Act. The stockpile at the Campbellfield warehouse, where there was that toxic blaze, included 450 000 litres of chemical waste. There are 13 sites in Melbourne’s north containing stockpiles of chemical waste. It is estimated that up to 16 million litres of chemical waste is stored on these 13 properties. So far around 6.8 million litres of dangerous goods have been removed. This is very disturbing. The serious risk to community safety and the environment posed by these stockpiles is massive. Those who engage in reckless conduct in relation to dangerous goods, those who endanger health and safety, property or the environment, and those who contravene the directions of the regulator ought to receive penalties that reflect the serious risks that are posed by their conduct. And these penalties ought to be serious enough to provide a significant deterrent to others. Whilst these penalties do not apply retrospectively to the sites already identified, this bill sends a very clear message that conduct that puts lives at risk will not be tolerated. What is particularly concerning about the Campbellfield blaze and what makes it really clear that the current penalties provide little deterrence is that stockpiled on the site was more than three times the amount of chemical waste allowed under the licence, inspections had occurred and the regulator had issued a clean-up order weeks earlier and the day before the fire the regulator was there again and did another inspection and nothing had changed. The stockpile remained and the regulator’s directions were ignored. We all know that these stockpiles are incredibly dangerous. I did hear mentioned earlier in the debate that Melburnians or Victorians ought to know where these properties are, that they have a right to know. To a degree I agree with that. They need to know if they are in their suburbs, but I do have a concern with identifying the addresses of those premises. These premises are under 24-hour surveillance for a reason. We do not want people tramping around those premises when they are incredibly volatile. That worker who was carrying a drum that exploded was not throwing it around. These chemicals are so volatile that entering those premises and disturbing them can cause death. That is why these sites take months and months and months to clear. One of the workplace inspectors said that clearing these premises was like a game of Jenga, which as members would know involves very carefully removing one piece at a time and hoping that the rest does not come tumbling down. So we do need to send a very strong message, and I believe this bill does send a very strong message. It is not the only message that we are sending; it is part of a range of measures that are being put in place because the current circumstances cannot continue. It is not good enough. We have to stamp out these rogue operators, and we also need to make sure that the current sites where there are stockpiled chemicals are cleaned up and that our suburbs remain safe. I commend the bill to the house.