By Eliza Goetze and Declan Gooch
Bio-Organics ran the green waste recycling facility based in the suburb of Oakford, and was awarded a licence by the WA Department of Environment Regulation to handle a larger volume of the waste in 2013.
Neighbours began to complain that fumes were making them ill following the licencing change, and properties around the Bio-Organics site were found to be contaminated.
The assistant editor of The Sunday Times, John Flint, who ran the investigation, said the residents came to the paper because no one else would listen and government departments we unco-operative.
He said homeowners gave the paper graphic details of the detrimental impact on their lives after Bio-Organics received the updated licence to process more waste.
“They were telling me how they couldn’t sit on their porches, have barbecues or friends over, were forced to eat away from their homes, endure summers with the windows locked depending on the wind direction,” he said.
Residents showed Mr Flint threatening legal letters sent to people concerned about Bio-Organics’ operations who spoke at council meetings.
“I’d never heard of anyone standing up at a council meeting and speaking at a democratic forum and copping a letter in the post,” Mr Flint said.
“They weren’t getting any help, so they turned to us.”
Mr Flint said the community had not been informed about the 2013 licencing change that saw the facility able to process an increased amount of toxic waste.
The paper’s requests for details under the Freedom of Information Act over exactly what processes the department had approved for Bio-Organics were knocked back, with the department saying it could not divulge the trade practices of the company.
After an appeal by the paper, the request was finally granted, revealing that almost 100 million litres of liquid waste had been trucked to Bio-Organics.
However the paper found that, once there, the waste was tipped onto a small compost pad and ended up in the local drainage system, which discharges into the Serpentine River and the Peel Harvey Estuary.
“In many ways, it was a classic old-school newspaper investigation where we went to the rescue of the local community,” Mr Flint said.
“If they feel they’ve got nowhere else to turn, they should feel they can go to their local newspaper and they will go in to bat for them. You can’t draw any conclusions when you first go into a story, but the community was screaming for help and we answered.
“That’s what newspapers have always done, and should always do.”
The community lobbied the local MP to start a parliamentary inquiry, which is now under way.
Alan Clarkson, president of the Serpentine Jarrahdale Residents’ and Ratepayers’ Association, said the group had heard about the pollution two and a half years ago and pushed the council to test the water, which turned up heavy metal, carbon and nitrate pollution.
“He is a very, very thorough investigative journalist,” Mr Clarkson said. “We were stymied at every turn.
“Even the council couldn’t find out from the Department of Environment Regulation what was going into the groundwater.”
The government has told the inquiry that it would be another 12 months before tests could reveal the full extent of the pollution, despite the testing commissioned by the council providing proof of serious contamination.
“These people will not be able to sell their properties,” Mr Clarkson said. “The Sunday Times was the only way we had of getting the issue out in the broader community and we wouldn’t have had half of what we got [without them].”