Australia's first deep toxic waste repository is one step closer to a reality, despite an independent environment body flagging huge environmental and financial risks to the community and Northern Territory government.
The NT Environment Protection Authority has supported the approval of a central Australian salt mine which could also house up to 400,000 tonnes of hazardous waste underground per year, subject to a raft of conditions.
Tellus Holdings wants to set up the Chandler facility on Maryvale Station, close to Titjikala, a remote Aboriginal community located 120km south of Alice Springs.
The country’s largest toxic waste surface storage facility is expected to run for at least 25 years.
But the EPA is concerned that Tellus plans to accept the waste for four years before the 800-metre deep geological cavity has been “proven or constructed”.
It says should the business fail and abandon the site before that time, there’s a high risk of a legacy toxic stockpile equivalent to 20,600 shipping containers.
Without proper disposal, there’s a high likelihood that the mine and potentially surrounding areas “would become a contaminated site – the magnitude of which would be on an international scale”.
The EPA said further evidence is required to demonstrate that the Chandler facility is the best option for long-term disposal of eight per cent of the nation’s annual toxic waste generation, and has made 19 recommendations to mitigate risks.
The company must provide money up front to the NT government to guarantee it doesn’t become liable for clean up costs should Tellus become insolvent.
Tellus must also fund an independent auditor and publish ongoing safety reports.
“There’s going to be rigorous environmental regulatory scrutiny of this project over 25 or 30 years,” EPA chairman Dr Paul Vogel said.
“This is a first for Australia so we really do need to get this right.”
The proposal will now go to Environment Minister Lauren Moss for consideration before seeking federal approval.
Tellus managing director Duncan van der Merwe says the $676 million project will create 450 jobs with a 10 per cent Aboriginal employment target.
“Tellus sees waste as a valuable resource where we should find ways for it to re-enter the circular economy or stored safely until it can be reused or recycled,” he said.