Katherine council at fault for 2019 tyre fire, EPA investigation finds

by | Sep 9, 2020 | Business | 0 comments

By Roxanne Fitzgerald

An investigation into the Katherine Town Council has found it “potentially committed a number of offences” which led to an illegal stack of about 300 tonnes of tyres catching fire.

Territory Day events in the regional town were forced to be relocated last year as the fire erupted over tyres illegally dumped by the council behind the Show Grounds, sending plumes of black, toxic smoke into the air.  

The NT Environment Protection Authority immediately launched an investigation into the circumstances which led to the fire, and directed the council to clean up and remove the waste.

In concluding its investigation today, the NT EPA found Katherine Town Council was not licensed to store or dispose of the tyres behind the Show Grounds.

Determining the council “potentially” committed a number of offences under the Waste Management and Pollution Act, it will now be binded into a performance agreement with the NT EPA.

Nobody will be held personally responsible however.  

As toxic chemicals from the tyres leaked into the ground, the council was facing hefty fines from the NT EPA, while remediation and removal costs climbed to almost half a million dollars.  

NT EPA Chair Dr Paul Vogel said the implementation of the performance agreement rather than pursuing a prosecution would provide long term benefits for Katherine’s residents. 

“Katherine Town Council engaged with us openly and immediately about this matter,” Dr Vogel said. 

“Katherine Town Council has already spent considerable sums of money and will need to spend more to continue the clean-up from the waste tyre fire. 

Dr Vogel said pursuing a prosecution through the courts would have diverted resources away from the cash-strapped Katherine region and unfairly penalise ratepayers through considerable fines and legal fees.

“A prosecution would not have achieved what this agreement does, which is a very positive and longterm outcome for the Katherine community,” he said.  

“Katherine Town Council’s commitments under the agreement will put Katherine at the forefront in waste planning and management in the NT. 

“The tyre fire incident and NT EPA’s response reinforces the need for all councils to ensure that waste is effectively managed. 

The performance agreement requires Katherine Town Council to: 

  • Purchase, install and operate an ongoing ambient air quality monitoring station (AQMS) to measure particulates (smoke) and associated parameters in the Katherine region;
  • Develop a waste management strategy for the Katherine region under control of the Council that will outline clear actions, timelines and budget to address a range of waste management matters and challenges; and
  • Implement the actions identified in the waste management strategy in a timely manner and report measurements of improvement against defined key performance objectives and action items.

“The air quality monitoring station will for the first time provide Katherine residents with real time data about the quality of the Katherine air environment during the fire season, as well as an increased understanding of any potential impacts to Katherine residents,” Dr Vogel said.   

“This outcome commits Katherine Town Council to making significant and ongoing improvements to its environmental performance as well as delivering environmental and health benefits for the community.” 

In an attempt to dampen the flames on July 1, the illegal tyres were covered with mountains of soil.  

But council documents state “they continued to burn for the next four to five months,” leaking toxic hydro-carbons deep into the soil. 

The council was required to fork out $300,000 to Darwin’s Shoal Bay Waste Management Facility to remove and deal with the contaminated soil. 

According to the EPA, tyres can only be stored in a licenced location. The unsecured area at the rear of the showgrounds appears to breach those requirements. 

At a December council meeting, the Katherine Times reported Alderman Elizabeth Clark said the tyres were deposited “with the best intentions”. 

“We were not storing them, we were trialing them for a fence,” she said. 

“At the time we thought it was a good idea, hindsight is a wonderful thing.” 

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