Rogue operators who illegally store or dump dangerous waste in Victoria could face up to 10 years in prison and hefty fines, under new laws proposed by the state government.
A new “reckless conduct” offence would see individuals hit with the jail term and companies facing million-dollar fines if they were reckless in storing, selling, using, transporting or manufacturing dangerous goods.
It follows revelations that the Melbourne factory that exploded in a chemical inferno in April was linked to another factory that went up in flames last August.
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation identified an “alleged criminal operation” involving more than a dozen Melbourne sites where hazardous chemicals were being stored, often without a licence.
The August blaze, at a factory in West Footscray, burned for weeks, blanketed parts of Melbourne’s west in smoke, polluted a creek and was blamed for making residents sick.
Firefighters later told the ABC they were shocked at how many 44-gallon drums and other containers were in the building, where it is believed chemicals were being stored without a licence.
The April fire in the northern suburb of Campbellfield happened a month after its licence was suspended, due to more waste being stored than permitted and storage containers not being labelled correctly.
Millions of dollars in fines for companies flouting laws
The proposed amendments to the state’s dangerous goods legislation would see a huge increase in the punishment for people found to be flouting the laws — doubling from four to five years’ prison to up to ten years behind bars.
Fines have also been given a hike, increasing from $806,000 to $3.6 million for corporations found to be endangering health and safety.
The financial punishment for individuals would be increased from $161,000 to $290,000.
“We’re making sure people and businesses who engage in rogue operations like the illegal stockpiling of dangerous goods face penalties that reflect the seriousness of their actions,” Minister for Workplace Safety Jill Hennessy said in a statement.
“Anyone manufacturing, storing, transporting, transferring, selling or using dangerous goods has a duty to keep their workers, the community and the environment safe and these tough new penalties make that very clear.”
Coronial investigations into both the fires have been launched at the request of firefighters.
A government agency taskforce, led by WorkSafe, is removing dangerous goods waste from 12 warehouses in Melbourne’s outer-northern suburbs.