A fully autonomous coal operation was caught dumping hazardous waste that allegedly burst into flames multiple times in northeast New South Wales.
Whitehaven Coal subsidiary Narrabri Coal Operations has been fined by the environmental watchdog for transporting mine waste that is blamed for causing a series of fires at the Narrabri landfill, 187km northwest of Tamworth.
Incorrect disposal blamed
The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) claims the proponent inappropriately disposed of more than 100 self-rescuer units in an industrial hopper that was transported to the landfill, in breach of the mining licence and waste transport requirements.
“[As a result] the Narrabri Shire Council landfill had a number of fires in early to mid-April 2019, allegedly caused by equipment from the Narrabri Coal Mine disposed of at the landfill,’’ EPA director regulatory operations metro north Adam Gilligan said in a public statement.
The units are designed to provide oxygen to mine workers during incidents in underground mines. They contain between 90kg and 120kg of potassium hydroxide that is widely considered to be a corrosive dangerous good capable of generating very high power of hydrogen levels after being exposed to liquids.
“These units should not have been disposed of at the landfill as they are classified as hazardous waste, which the landfill is not authorised to receive,” Gilligan said. “When split open by compaction of the landfill cell, chemicals from the units can ignite. This is not only a safety issue but a breach of hazardous waste rules.”
Just 12 per cent recovered
The proponent ended up having to hire a contractor to spend five weeks manually searching through 700 cubic metres of general waste to try to recover the self-rescue units.
Only 12 of the units were recovered at the time of publication and a clean-up operation is still underway to ensure the site is safe for workers and environmental impacts are addressed.
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Narrabri Coal faces a penalty of $120,000 that is payable to the Environmental Trust. They money will then be transferred to Narrabri Shire Council to help develop a new waste cell at the landfill.
The proponent will also have to pay for EPA’s legal and investigation costs, design a compulsory training module for employees on managing hazardous substances, and deliver presentations about the incident and lessons learnt at an upcoming NSW Minerals Council environment and community committee meeting.