Fires broke out in a Melbourne landfill site four years ago. Residents are still waiting for them to end

<span>Photograph: Supplied</span>
Photograph: Supplied

At times, the stench has roused Nicole Power from her sleep. The St Albans resident likens it to the smell of burning chemicals.

“It get rights down in my throat,” she said.

Marian Pham, a Kealba resident said the smell triggered her asthma.

Since 2019, Powers, Pham and other residents in Melbourne’s west have lived with stench from fires burning at the Kealba landfill.

At first, residents couldn’t point to where the smell was coming from. Then, the word began spreading among locals who flooded the state’s Environment Protection Authority with odour reports.

More than four years since those first reports, the landfill is still burning.

Powers, a member of the community group Action against Barro Landfill, attended a community meeting run by the EPA on Thursday and said it was disheartening that the issue had dragged on for so long.

“The fact that we’re still having to attend meetings – four years down the track – is just a disgrace. It is so depressing,” she said.

“I am no clearer now than when they lost their licence 11 months ago about how big the fire is.”

The fire at the landfill, on the banks of the Maribyrnong River, was first reported to the EPA by owners, the Barro Group, in 2019.

The EPA said four “hotspots” were identified deep within the disposal pits used to store waste, and were likely caused by “oxygen entering the landfill”.

“When oxygen enters a landfill, it can result in combustion of old, decomposing waste,” a dedicated page on the EPA website reads.

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According to the same page, the EPA gave the Barro Group the green light to start its clean up of the site in April 2020.

By late 2021, three of the hotspots were extinguished, but the company’s licence to accept new waste was suspended after the EPA said it failed to meet deadlines to put all the fires out.

The largest fire – the last of the four – was required to have been extinguished by August 2022, the EPA said, but the company did not meet this deadline either.

Power, an asthmatic who lives about 300m from the site, said she reported the odour to the EPA twice in November but said it was “far from going away”.

“You don’t smell it as often. But when you do, it still smells just as strong [as 2019],” power said.

“There is so much frustration and anxiety that comes from living with this. Going forward, we’re really concerned about what the future holds for this block of land.”

Last year, the EPA charged the Barro Group and its three directors with breaching the general environmental duty, which states businesses have a responsibility to reduce risk to human health and the environment from pollution or waste. If found guilty, the company faces a penalty of up to $1.8m, and its three directors each face a fine of up to $360,000.

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Barro Group has sought judicial review of EPA’s decision to cancel its licence.

Lawyers representing the company said that, as the matter was before the court, Barro Group was unable to comment, including on the grounds in which it is seeking a judicial review.

When it announced the licence cancellation in January, the EPA said it had received a “preliminary report” from the company’s lawyers that an “an additional 90,000 to 100,000 cubic metres of material may need to be excavated to extinguish the final hotspot, which could take an additional 12 to 18 months”.

“This new information from Barro Group contradicts earlier advice given in October 2022 that works to extinguish the remaining hotspot was about 90% done, with completion expected by the end of 2022.”

The EPA said the Barro Group had submitted a new plan to put out the fire that involved “capping works and oxygen suppression to suffocate the hotspot”.

The EPA said it discussed the plan at the last week’s community meeting, after a site visit that day with representatives from the Brimbank council, Fire Rescue Victoria and WorkSafe.

“We’ll continue to actively regulate this site and our expectations of Barro Group haven’t changed – extinguish the hotspot and stop impacting on nearby residents – and we will use all tools and powers we have to hold the company to account,” the EPA’s regional manager, Steve Lansdell, said.

“EPA also remains committed to keeping the community informed through our regular email updates and community meetings like the one we held [last week], the tenth this year.”

The acting director for city futures at Brimbank council, Leanne Deans, said the management of the landfill was a “significant and ongoing concern”.

“Council has advocated for urgent action to respond to resident concerns, including those most impacted who live near the site,” she said.

“The Brimbank community has been suffering for years from the impacts of the noxious odours coming from hotspot fires at the Barro Group’s Kealba landfill.”

A Victorian government spokesperson said it had provided the EPA with “record” funding to “crack down on [alleged] polluters and give them greater powers so they can adapt and respond to emerging challenges”.