Regular readers will know that I have a lingering fondness for those things in life – sewer ponds, roadkill etc – that many feel less comfortable with. Now I’ve found another theme to follow…the rubbish dumps that seem to gather around the small towns of the Northern Territory like tropical ulcers on the leg of a long-grasser in the wet season.
This first of what may well be a very long series looks at the dumps of Borroloola, a small town (you can see a map here) near to the Queensland border in the NT’s Gulf Country.
It is what we call an “open” town, that is, while the population is overwhelmingly Aboriginal and is surrounded by Aboriginal land, it doesn’t require a permit to enter and stay there. Borroloola is mainly a service town for the surrounding Aboriginal townships, pastoral stations and the McArthur River Mine but the population swells in the dry season due to the influx of fishers. Borroloola is within the local government area of the Roper Gulf Shire, one of the recently established “super-shires” that replaced the many small local community government councils that operated before 2008.
Councils in the NT perform the usual local government functions – “roads, rates & rubbish” – plus a few more. It is the “rubbish” function that I want to have a look at here.
The photo above is of the official dump (aka “waste management facility”) run by the Roper Gulf Shire.
As is this picture.
All dumps in the NT are – or should be – operated within the Waste Management and Pollution Control Act of the NT (administered by the local Department of Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and Sport) under which a number of guidelines have been developed, including the Waste Management Guidelines for Small Communities in the Northern Territory and the Guidelines for the Siting Design and Management of Solid Waste Disposal Sites in the NT.
There is also a set of compliance guidelines associated with the Waste Management and Pollution Control Act that warn that:
People who choose to ignore their obligations under this legislation do so at the expense of the environment, the community and all those who obey the law.
The Guidelines describe how compliance with the Waste Management and Pollution Control Act should be achieved. The Guidelines are intended to provide greater certainty and predictability to the compliance process and thereby assist industry to comply with the legislation and enable the community to better understand compliance outcomes.
The Guidelines emphasise a range of methods that will be used to achieve compliance including:
• cooperative action;
• legislative action; and
• Court action.
Prosecution is discretionary and will be used where it is in the public interest.
I won’t pretend that running a dump in a remote community in the NT would be easy. In addition to the legislation and guidelines noted above the following may also be relevant – the Waste Management and Pollution Control (Administration) Regulations, the Water Act, the Public Health Act, the Public Health (General Sanitation, Mosquito Prevention, Rat exclusion and Prevention) Regulations, the Environmental Health Standards for Remote Communities in the Northern Territory 2001, the Local Government Act, the Workplace Health and Safety Act & Regulations and the Dangerous Goods Act.
The Waste Management Guidelines for Small Communities in the Northern Territory identify four key areas for the management of dumps – Hazard Reduction, which focuses on Asbestos, Chemicals, Lead-acid batteries, Medical: Clinical and related wastes, Medical: Waste medicines, pharmaceuticals, drugs, Paint, Tyres, Waste Oil Burning of Waste and Animal Carcasses); Environmental Protection, where the key elements are identified as Waste Minimisation, Reuse and Recycling, Groundwater and Leachate, Litter Control, Pest Control, Weed Control; Service Delivery, that examines Education and Community Awareness, Occupational Health and Safety, Staff Training, Bins, Collection Vehicles, Collection of Waste and Collection Frequency and finally On-going Site management.
Whether the Borroloola dump complies with the letter and intent of the relevant legislation and guidelines is beyond the scope of this piece.
The other key piece of legislation relevant to environmental health in the many small communities scattered around the NT is the Public and Environmental Health Act 2011 which is administered by the NT’s Health Department and has the following objects:
(a) to protect and promote the health of individuals and communities in the Territory;
(b) to provide a flexible capacity to protect the health of particular individuals and communities in the Territory from emerging environmental conditions, or public and environmental health issues, that may impact on their health and wellbeing;
(c) to enable special action to be taken to protect the health of particular individuals and communities in the Territory who are at public health risk or facing particular health problems;
(d) to improve the public and environmental health outcomes of all Territorians in partnership with individuals and the community;
(e) to monitor, assess and control environmental conditions, factors and agents, facilities and equipment and activities, services and products that impact on or may impact on public and environmental health.
(2) In carrying out the objects of this Act, regard should be had to the precautionary principle.
The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory [AMSANT] represents the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector in the Northern Territory and prepared an extensive submission to the NT Government about the Public and Environmental Health Act before it was enacted.
In response to the draft AMSANT noted in its submission that it:
…note[d] that the many threats to environmental and public health that have been largely eliminated in the rest of the nation over the past century still blight many of our communities: urban, regional and remote. To this extent, the capacity of comprehensive primary health care to meet the needs of Aboriginal Territorians—to Close the Gap—will continue to be frustrated in environments in which fundamental public health protections are not available or unmet.
AMSANT was concerned at the parlous state of environmental health of many of the communities that its members serve, where:
Poor environmental health conditions in remote communities and town camps include inadequate sanitation, water supply, rubbish disposal and grossly overcrowded housing. Basic infrastructure in many remote communities is either absent, inadequate and/or poorly maintained.
AMSANT also made strong recommendations about the role, and recognition of that role in the Act, of the NT Government and the Shire councils:
8 – The role of the NT Government and councils in environmental health service provision and enforcement of the environmental health components of this Act should be set out clearly in this legislation. These roles must include the provision of basic environmental health services such as rubbish disposal and animal control to an adequate standard.
9 – The Northern Territory Government and councils should be required under this Act to draw up public health plans that are publicly available. The NTG and councils should also submit a report at the end of the planning period that describes how the plan was implemented with recommendations for the next planning period. The Northern Territory Government should also have a statutory duty to collect key information about the health of the population so as to inform the NT Government and council plans.
AMSANT’s entirely sensible suggestions were ignored.
Meanwhile, back in Borroloola, apart from the “official” dump run by the Council, The Northern Myth found a couple of others close handy to town.
This one runs for several hundred metres just over the banks of the (otherwise) beautiful McArthur River. The riverbank is apparently a favourite camping spot of some high-placed locals when the annual Rodeo is on.
And just a few kilometres away there is another informal dump.
I’ve no shortage of similar – in fact a lot worse – examples of remote community dumps to show you. If you have any suggestions about some that might be worth a closer look at I’ll try to catch them in my travels…