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‘Disgusting stench’: the Queenslanders fighting for clean, fresh air

Some liken the stench wafting around Ipswich to the smell of rotten eggs. It makes your eyes water, your throat itch and triggers your gag reflex.

Others describe the smell as chemical, reminiscent of manure and fertiliser, but stronger. Once this foul odour enters your home, they say, it lingers for hours.

Tracey Butler simply labels it “putrid”.

“It’s a manure, composting, rotten eggs odour with chemicals mixed in,” she says.

“It makes you vomit within 30 seconds.”

Butler first noticed the smell five years ago when she was unpacking boxes to move into her home in Redbank Plains, south-west of Brisbane.

Since then, she says it’s only become worse.

“For two weeks solid, I couldn’t even get out and hose any plants in the garden,” Butler said.

“My dogs have what the vet calls ‘unknown environmental rashes’.”

Kathleen Sheen works from home in South Ripley and says the smell will often creep into her house if she leaves a window open.

Her son attends a local high school and takes cover inside the library at lunchtime whenever the stench blows into the school grounds.

“The smell is terrible … It depends on the wind direction … Sometimes my friend and I will be out walking and we have to go home because it gives us a headache,” she said.

“We can be having a barbecue with friends and the smell comes in, and we get so embarrassed.”

‘It’s never ending’

The Ipswich region carries a huge load of Queensland’s rubbish, with 42% of the state’s waste going into eight private landfills in the area, according to mayor Teresa Harding.

Harding says that, since the establishment of the state’s Odour Abatement taskforce in 2018, there have been more than 26,000 complaints from residents, with many raising physical or mental side effects.

She has been demanding a public health inquiry into the issue but the state’s chief health officer, Dr John Gerrard, told reporters in September that he didn’t believe that was necessary.

“I don’t think it would add anything, we’re already doing the public health work,” Gerrard said.

He said exposure to bad smells can cause physical symptoms and urged affected residents to see their GP.

“I have no doubt those symptoms are real, but we have no evidence that they represent toxicity,” he said.

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Harding is also pushing the government to legislate so that operators are forced to enclose compost at facilities that are close to residents.

“The community is sick and tired. It’s a disgusting stench that comes and goes. We [have been] dealing with it for over a decade, and our population is actually set to double over the next 17 years,” she said.

“The fact this smell is there and we don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s never ending. It’s really been quite traumatic for many people in our community.”

Ipswich city council has long been involved in legal stoushes with waste companies, but Harding alleges NuGrow’s composting facility at Swanbank is the current source of the stink.

The council launched legal action against NuGrow in October, accusing the company of breaching planning offences relating to landfill activity, expanded and unenclosed composting and unapproved building works.

NuGrow in turn has filed a lawsuit against the council after it knocked back a development application to enclose composting with a textile fibre rather than within a structure.

On Friday, the Department of Environment and Science (DES) filed its own court order against NuGrow seeking to “halt odour-producing aspects” at the Swanbank facility.

“Odour issues being experienced by the Ipswich community are unacceptable,” the department said in a statement.

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The application, filed in the planning and environment court, seeks interim orders to stop the facility receiving “highly odorous waste” that has a high chance of impacting the community.

A NuGrow spokesperson said the company “takes its responsibilities to the community and the environment very seriously”.

“We recognise Ipswich residents’ concerns about the impact of unpleasant odours around the Swanbank Industrial Area (SIA) and we have been active in trying to resolve this problem,” they said.

The spokesperson said the council and the state government approved the location of NuGrow’s facilities and the company has “always been perturbed by the council’s subsequent approval of housing development so close to the SIA.”

They said NuGrow had attempted to enclose its compost but the department refused its specific application about how the waste would be covered, with the matter now under appeal.

Fight for ‘clean, fresh air’ continues

There have been many other conflicts with waste companies in recent years. In 2022, the state government ordered Cleanaway to close and rehabilitate one of its landfill cells, after an odour was detected at its facility in New Chum.

The company was charged this year with wilfully causing an environmental nuisance, with the legal matter adjourned until 20 February.

The council has also spent $7m on legal fees to defend its decision to refuse the development applications of three waste companies, Cleanaway, Lantrak and Austin BMI. A court dismissed the appeals by Cleanaway and Lantrak in June, but gave development approval for the third company, Austin BMI, subject to conditions.

The Greens candidate for Ipswich division 3, Danielle Mutton, says that for wealthy waste companies the fines issued for non-compliance are “minuscule”.

“The buck stops with the state government. They need to have stronger compliance and enforcement measures on these companies,” she said.

Queensland environment minister, Leanne Linard, says an investigation into ensuring composting facilities near residential areas are fully enclosed is continuing.

“Composting facilities located in the southern part of the Swanbank industrial area have been identified as the likely cause of the odour and have been subject to increased targeted compliance inspection activities over recent months, to ensure operators are meeting their environmental obligations,” she said.

Linard said the government is working to “enhance the powers and penalties under the Environmental Protection Act and has “supported or supported in-principle” all 18 recommendations of an independent review of the act.

Despite the many legal battles and enforcement actions against waste companies, Butler still plans her day around when she suspects the smell may arise.

“We’ve got to put towels at the gaps of the doors so the odour doesn’t come in. We can’t hang out washing,” she said.

“When I look after my grandkids and the smell’s around, it brings on an asthma attack with them.

“My husband says ‘why did you start fighting?’ I said, ‘for clean, fresh air and to stop seeing these poor kids suffering.’”

Cleanaway did not respond to Guardian Australia’s request for comment.