Trashed: the neighbourhood made sick by Melbourne’s landfill demands

By Marilyn Tan and Xinyi Li (Violet) | 19 Jan 23

Sunshine Avenue in the Melbourne suburb of Kealba is lined on one side with brick houses with well-tended gardens. At first glance, the western suburbs street looks little different from other post-war suburbs in this city. Except the houses are just metres away from a burning landfill site.

A gentle breeze blows odour from the fire toward the houses. Residents describe the smell as a mix of chemical fertiliser, rotten eggs, molten chemicals and plastics, and animal carcasses.

“It consumes your life,” says local resident Nicole Power. “You just can’t escape.”

Residential areas opposite to the Kealba Landfill. Photo: Xinyi Li

Hotspots in Kealba Landfill have been burning for more than three years. The landfill, which accepts “solid inert waste”, typically from commercial, industrial, building and demolition activities, is located only 60 metres from homes. That was consistent with the 50-metre minimum buffer required when the landfill application was submitted in 2001. That minimum has since been increased to 250 metres and the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is currently considering doubling it to 500 metres – a buffer nine times greater than residents currently endure.

The landfill owner-operator is a private company overseen by a second generation of Barro family members. The Barro Group, along with the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), insist the odour does not pose any permanent health risk. But residents believe the odour is responsible for chronic physical and mental health conditions that have plagued some since the fires started burning. They are critical of the accuracy of air monitoring results and findings that the air quality issues are “harmless.”

Residents are also frustrated at what they describe as weak and delayed actions from the EPA. On 11 January, the EPA cancelled the licence for the landfill after issuing multiple regulatory notices to extinguish the fires and contain the odour. But the regulator admitted hotspots would continue to burn for up to a further 18 months after the company disclosed information about its depth that “contradicted” previous advice.

Meanwhile, since the fires first broke out, siblings Raymond and Rhonda Barro have seen their wealth rise to $1.8 billion on the AFR Rich List in 2022, up from $1.65 billion in 2019.

Climate change stinks

Some locals believe their under-privileged community is used as a dumping ground for the rest of Melbourne’s refuse, a symbol of its insatiable appetite for new consumer goods and house renovations with the environmental costs and hazards shipped “out of sight and out of mind” of the wealthier south, east and northern suburbs.  Experts say climate change will only increase the health and wellbeing tolls on the local community if the hotspot and landfill odour problems cannot be fixed.

And just as habits of waste and overconsumption have contributed to climate change, so global warming and increases in extreme weather events worsen the effects of landfill hazards and local residents’ quality of life.

Victoria’s temperature is forecast to increase up to 2.4°C by 2050 and heatwaves are expected to last longer, with more days where temperatures exceed 35°C.

Nicole Power says summer makes the odour much more unbearable as residents have to keep their homes sealed to try and keep out the stench. “It is crazy to shut down all the doors and windows in hot summers,” she says. As the number of high heat days is predicted to increase, this will only get worse.

Research indicates landfill gas production will also increase as higher temperatures accelerate the waste degradation. Residents’ odour and health concern reports peaked in the summer of 2020, according to the EPA’s Kealba Landfill Odour Report.

The Brimbank municipality, which covers the landfill and affected areas, sits on the rocky and dry Western Volcanic Plains and is particularly vulnerable to heatwaves.

“We already have a hotter dryer temperature over the summer… and hotter overnight temperatures. Climate change will exacerbate that.”

Maribyrnong councillor Bernadette Thomas, who ran as a Greens candidate at the state election

On the nose

Residents first reported an unusual odour to the EPA in October 2019. The smell intensified, and in November that year, the Barro Group notified the EPA of first one and later four hotspots in two “cells”, as the disposal pits for hazardous waste are called. 

The EPA says that the hotspots were likely due to “oxygen entering the landfill, and combusting with old, decomposed waste”, and committed to investigate further once all hotspots were remediated.

After eight months of planning, the Barro Group commenced its official remediation work in July 2020. By the end of 2021, three of the hotspots were extinguished. But more than a year later, the largest is still burning.

Enough to make you sick

More than 10,000 odour and health complaints have been made since the hotspots were first detected, according to the Kealba Landfill Odour Report, released by the EPA in July 2022. The odour primarily impacts those living west of the landfill in Kealba and St Albans. They experience increased asthma symptoms, coughing, and nausea, among other ill effects, according to the report.

Local resident Marian Pham says she first developed asthma symptoms, which she hadn’t previously experienced, a year after the fires started burning. Pham says she now uses a steroid inhaler to get it under control.

Pham is not alone. Anna Axiak, who also had no asthma prior to the burning landfill, says she cannot breathe normally without prevention and relief medication.

The location of Northern and Western Monitoring Stations (red spots in the map). The Western Station is right opposite the residential area, and it faces the frequent northerly wind in the area that brings odour right to the residents. Yellow areas are service stations. Source: EPA

The Barro Group is required by the EPA to conduct monthly air monitoring for key substances at the Kealba site, including Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 (tiny airborne pollutants that can travel deep into the lungs). Two air monitoring stations are located at the northern and western boundaries of the landfill.

Of the 77 VOCs analyzed, concentrations were typically below the levels that would contribute to long-term health symptoms with two exceptions. On four occasions between 2019 and 2021, benzene was found to exceed the standard level. Freon 11 and 12 were above the safe limit in almost all the reports on the Kealba Landfill website. In its Kealba Landfill Odour Report, the EPA stated the risk of chronic health impacts from the benzene levels, which occurred at “infrequent and intermittent rates” is low, while Freon 11 and 12 may arise from “other background sources unrelated to combustion, such as refrigerant gases” disposed of in the landfill.

Volatile Organic Compounds and their health impacts (Graphic by Marilyn Tan) Sources: Environment Working Group and US Environment Protection Agency.

When it comes to PM2.5, the data tells an even less reassuring story.

Information about PM2.5 particles. (Graphic by Marilyn Tan). Source: US EPA New York State Department of Health California Air Resources Board
Information about PM2.5 particles. (Graphic by Marilyn Tan). Source: US EPA New York State Department of Health California Air Resources Board

Barro Group’s monthly reports from its western monitoring station, directly opposite residents’ houses, showed PM2.5 readings exceeded safe levels on nearly thirteen days per month from July 2020 to August 2022. It was deemed poor on close to three days per month.

When Kealba resident Nicole Power, who lives 350 metres from the landfill, expressed her concern about the unsafe PM2.5 levels, the EPA told her that the particles could be caused by traffic rather than the landfill fires. 

Power is not convinced. She points out the roads were far less busy during the Covid lockdowns.”The road was quiet. And if it’s from the road, [the unsafe levels] would be at the same time every single day, but [they are] not,” she says.

The right to breathe clean air

Particles and compounds aside, there is also the impact of the terrible odour on the residents of Sunshine Avenue and beyond.

The ways in which poor air quality due to odour itself causes a person harm are complex. 

Odours are detected when the “odorant” compounds of airborne chemicals stimulate the olfactory nerve. Cells in the lining behind the nose and in the throat react to these chemical aromas, which can then release inflammatory chemicals that may, in turn, trigger physical symptoms.

According to the US Public Health Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the human olfactory system is able to detect chemicals below the threshold levels at which concentrations cause toxic effects in humans. Health symptoms like asthma can occur from “sub-irritant” odours, with the degree of unpleasantness and an individual’s exposure history believed to play a role.

According to the EPA and the Barro Group, air monitoring results demonstrate odour, while offensive, poses “no issues of concern for long-term community health … in most cases”. 

The EPA’s advice on whether odour alone can cause physical ailments is inconsistent. In its 2022 report into the Kealba Landfill fires, it describes odours as “concentrations of substances in the air … that stimulate the sense of smell but are below levels at which they would create a physiological response in humans”. Yet in advice to doctors treating communities near the Kealba fires, the EPA states: “Odours can stimulate the central nervous system causing short-term, reversible physiological effects including triggering of asthma symptoms. Nonetheless, the long-term risk to health from odour exposure is very low.”

Trevor Thornton, environmental consultant at Deakin University and a former EPA employee, says odours without chemicals at harmful levels can still cause distress. 

“You can have odour which doesn’t actually necessarily have any really harmful chemicals in it, but it can still make people feel ill… [It] can be annoying, can interfere with sleep… and just being outside and enjoying where you live.”

Trevor Thornton, environmental consultant at Deakin University

Thornton’s analysis is consistent with a 2009 paper published in the American Journal of Human Health, which found people exposed to persistent and foul odour from pig farming avoided engaging in outdoor activities and socialising, and experienced sleep disruption – all activities essential for good health – and appeared to trigger “stress and negative mood”. 

The report concludes as “malodorous” industries are most often located in low-income communities, such odours are “an important aspect of environmental injustice that threatens physical, mental, and social well-being.”

Local Jamie Ramsay says the psychological impact of living with the landfill odour was especially challenging during the extended 262-day COVID-19 lockdowns. “Not to be able to escape [the smell was] detrimental to mental health and wellbeing”, he says.

Nicole Power says even with the single fire burning, the odour and its effects are overwhelming.

“You still have days where you can’t breathe… you get headaches,.. you’re just frustrated and depressed and angry. You walk out the door and you say, ‘Oh my god. Smell that.’ It consumes your life.”

Nicole Power, local resident

Behind the Barro Group

Community health and safety is something members of the Barro family appear to have an interest in, with a history of involvement in high-profile and prestigious welfare organisations.

The Barro Group is a family-owned company that supplies concrete and quarry products to the construction industry. Raymond Barro is the company’s managing director, while his sister, Rhonda Barro is an executive director. The siblings are also non-executive directors of ASX-listed building materials company AdBri, which has a current valuation of $1.73 billion. 

Rhonda Barro is currently a director of the prestigious St Vincent Institute of Medical Research Foundation Board, and previously had a long-term involvement with Melbourne-based Italian welfare organisation Co.As.It, whose current patron is Victorian Governor Linda Dessau. Neither organisation responded to a request for comment. 
Meanwhile, Raymond Barro is a member of AdBri’s Safety, Health, Environment and Sustainability Committee. According to its charter, the committee’s objective is: “to assist the Board in enabling the Group to operate its business safely, ethically, responsibly and sustainably in the communities in which it operates … reconciling social, environmental and economic demands to foster long term outcomes.” AdBri did not respond to a request to comment.

Critics say the siblings’ health and welfare stance is in stark contrast to the conduct of the Barro Group. Resident Marian Pham says the Barro Group has refused multiple requests to provide air purifiers to affected residents.

Van T Rudd, who stood for election in St Albans as the Victorian Socialist candidate in 2022, says: “The company has made hundreds of millions of dollars over the last years in other areas of expansion, but still they will not supply air purifiers to the locals.”

The EPA has come under fire from residents for what they believe was a slow response to the fires and community concerns. The landfill fires were first detected in November 2019, but the regulator only suspended Barro’s licence in September 2021, almost two years later, and withdrew from community information sessions in August 2021, citing ongoing legal proceedings.

Residents acknowledge the authority’s licence cancellation this month, as well as charging the company and its directors $2.88 million for breaches of the General Environmental Duty in October. 

But the foul-smelling fire smoulders on. Barro Group missed the EPA deadline to remediate all hotspots in August last year, and its licence cancellation, effective from1 February 2023, means only that it cannot resume accepting waste. After having told residents in October the remediation work was 90 per cent complete, the EPA revealed Barro admitted in December that an additional 100,000 cubic metres of waste may need to be excavated to put the final hot spot out. The EPA advised this would take 12-18 months to complete.

Pham says the excavation of the three extinguished hotspots was much faster than the excavation of the one that is still burning. “Hotspot one was already the largest of the four hotspots,” she says. Had they been remediating this hotspot at the rate they were for the others, it wouldn’t have expanded to this extent.”

“We’ve just been … begging the EPA to help us, to fine this company and shut them down,” says local Anna Jez, who has been impacted by the odour from the landfill.

A spokesperson for the EPA describes as “astounding” Barro Group’s Deccember admission the last hotspot would take until 2024 to extinguish after previously claiming it would be completed in late 2022. The move came only weeks after the EPA laid criminal charges attracting penalties of up to $1.8 million for the company and $360,000 for each of its three directors.

“[C]ompliance has been too slow,” the EPA spokesperson says. “Given this latest information, we have asked for an independent verification of the timelines and we are looking at all legal options available to us.”

Angry about the additional delay, residents fear legal appeals will further delay resolution of their air quality and wellbeing concerns.

A committal mention hearing in relation to the criminal charges has been set for 31 March in the Magistrates Court. The Barro Group was already challenging its licence suspension by the EPA, with a hearing set for 2 October 2023 in the Supreme Court. It is unclear how the licence cancellation will affect this action. The Barro Group declined an interview.

“We’d like to see the EPA and our local and state government representatives push Barro to work faster to put this fire out,” says resident Marian Pham. “Perhaps fines could be imposed for each month the fire continues to burn.”

Walking all over the working class 

At a protest in September attended by dozens of people, the community chanted “Barro Group, get out of town, the West is not your dumping ground.”

Liz Walsh says residents in Melbourne’s West are disproportionately affected by the landfills.

“This isn’t happening in Toorak, in Kew, in Malvern,” the former Victorian Socialist candidate says.  “[It]’s in working class areas that we get walked all over.” 

Lessons for Lordstown: Learning from Kealba landfill 

Residents of Brimbank are not alone. Landfills around the world produce toxic gases, are the subject of accusations of mismanagement by authorities and ensure that communities are even more vulnerable to climate change.

The Lordstown landfill in Ohio, USA, is one such example.

It began operating in 2004, accepting demolition and construction waste from the United States.

According to the group “Citizens Against Lordstown Landfill”, the 130 acre site has caused significant damage to the environment and human health. Decomposing waste produced toxic gases, which led to odour and health complaints from residents.

Markus Aurelius, an activist against Lordstown’s landfill, says that “toxic gases and weak enforcement of landfills are worldwide problems”, highlighting the need for government  accountability and a channel of communication with residents. 

In contrast to Australia, where the regulator pressed charges against the Barro Group in October 2022, in Ohio, a class action was filed against the owners of the landfill by residents. Media reports quote local residents describing the odour as “awful,” “skunk-like or rotten smelling” and “causing instant headaches”.  
In August of last year, action was taken against the owners of the landfill by over 100 residents living in the vicinity claiming $US5 million in damages.

This investigation is part of a series on how climate change will impact the places we live by students at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, co-published by The Age and The Citizen and supported by independent media not-for-profit Right Now.