It is almost hard to believe that Australia was amid a catastrophic bushfire season early last year.
According to a Parliamentary Report published in February 2020, the 2019-2020 bushfire season has been declared the worst in our history. There was almost immeasurable damage caused to lives and property. The effect of such a devastating event has had profound fallout to both people and the environment, resulting in a national death toll of 33, over 2,500 homes destroyed, and over 19.4 million hectares of land burnt – leaving thousands of people displaced. According to the report, in Victoria alone, more than 1.2 million hectares have been burnt – the most since 1939.
The State and Federal Government funded the bushfire clean-up action, committing more than $75million. Bushfire Recovery Victoria (BRV) appointed head contractor Grocon who engaged several contractors to assist in the Gippsland Bushfire Clean-Up works. Enviropacific appreciated the opportunity to provide multiple Class A Asbestos Removalist and Demolition teams as part of the project. The BRV goal was to complete the recovery in less than 6 – 9 months, a mammoth task, but one we helped achieve.
A Methodical Emergency Response
Working away in such a remote location was indeed an immersive experience for our team. There was no denying that from the beginning, logistics and planning were somewhat challenging. Despite this, establishing functional and safe processes to remediate the sites became undeniably fulfilling to facilitate.
We worked tirelessly with our client to program and stage the works most logically and cost-effectively. Often, our crews would move straight across boundaries to neighbouring sites. Our project sites were people’s homes, backyards, sheds, and animal shelters, frequently resulting from their life’s work.
Our licenced crews quickly mobilised to the site, with the first crews on the ground in March and six crews active by May 2020. We had over 55 hard-working staff and contractors working to Class A friable asbestos removal conditions demolishing and cleaning up on any day. Work health and safety regulations required the asbestos removalists to be Enviropacific staff, but our team’s backbone was the local contractors. In addition, we engaged many local providers, including traffic controllers, excavator operators, truck drivers, plumbers, electricians, and local hospitality operators. Many of these were friends or family of those who lost everything. This further heightened the emotional impact everyone took away from the project.
AN UNCERTAIN CLEAN-UP TASK
- Key commitments from Government were for an expeditious clean-up.
- Regional, rural and often challenging location, without telecommunication or emergency support nearby.
- All properties were considered to have contained asbestos, which was now friable as a result of the fire.
- Any less than strict Class A asbestos removal conditions was determined unsafe due to widespread damage and inherent risk.
- An independent occupational hygienist provided asbestos clearances.
- Soil validation challenges were encountered due to the potential for asbestos fibres in soils. As a result, the methodology included the removal and landfilling of the top 100mm of soil.
- The presence of other contaminants, including hydrocarbons treated timbers and farming equipment. We worked closely with our project teams to ensure the prevention of cross-contamination in soil.
Clean Up & Recovery
- Property specific work setup
- 5-day regulator notification reduced to 48 hours
- OHS Regulations (2017) for Class A asbestos removal were followed
- Unprecedented WorkSafe presence
- Over 50 Proactive Intervention Visits across the 120 properties cleaned up. Typically, Enviropacific receives <5 WorkSafe visits per annum.
- Division 5 Asbestos Assessment for every property in bushfire prone area
- Assessment of top 100mm of soil from each property for chemical contamination screening
Transport and Logistics
- The remoteness of sites meant it took over 8 hours to remove waste from the site
- Sometimes it was beneficial to send trucks between sites on the same day
- We secured local contractors and improved their trucks for compliance
- Many properties were only accessible by poorly maintained logging roads
- Increased traffic on local roads, specific haulage routes to waste facilities were followed
- Reduced vehicles movements to reduce the carbon footprint of the project
- All waste was initially classified as non-prescribed industrial waste: “Bushfire Waste.”
- We managed to recover wastes where suitable. This was achieved by: source segregation, off-site segregation and, recycling in local townships.
- Where we salvaged waste for profit, Enviropacific returned this revenue to the community as a fundraising charity donation.
- Waste variations included building wastes, rubble, steel, concrete, bricks, timber, asbestos and surface soils. All contaminated materials were removed to landfill to achieve clearance.
- Transportation in non-EPA permitted vehicles was allowed due to limited local capability.
- Vehicles were still required to comply with EPA permit requirements (sealed tarps, spill kits, response plan)
We worked with Grocon, the Managing Contractor, to help clean up hundreds of properties. The homes and their respective owners that we worked for were particularly vulnerable. Our works demanded our teams give the utmost respect for where they were, who they were with, the local environment, the damage, and how they interacted. As a result, the owners moved our teams.
The level of community engagement was high, with the Enviropacific teams lending a hand wherever possible. The photo above shows an older man in Sarsfield who wanted to look through the remains of his home. Unfortunately, he was unable to due to the area being deemed asbestos-contaminated. He was also elderly and unable to search. We arranged for the owner to view the works close-up through an iPad. Our asbestos supervisor spent time before and during the work walking through and inspecting the remains of his home, recovering what we could.
Our teams working at Mallacoota spent several hours helping a resident whose home was destroyed in the fires search for a safe. The heavily burnt safe was discovered after a day of searching. Inside was a particularly precious item: a 140-year old coin he found when scuba-diving at a shipwreck several years ago. Elsewhere in Mallacoota, Enviropacific searched for over two hours to find the owners fathers’ war medals (pictured right) along with pottery and countless other unique pieces for other homeowners. Our Mallacoota crews also dedicated their time on a Sunday to perform handy tasks for several elderly residents in the community. In addition, one of our team offered to spend their one day off a week to give back and put their plumbing skills to use in a stricken community.
Enviropacific and the other contractors contributed towards a gift of a recycled woollen blanket to all affected property owners in Mallacoota. The wool came from Australian farmers, including those in bushfire affected areas, and the blanket was made by Australia’s oldest working textile mill, Waverly Mills.
Difficulties Posed by COVID-19
Our teams worked diligently, luckily avoiding the height of the Covid-19 Victorian lock-down in 2020, often from areas that had difficult site access and limited cellular reception. Specialist equipment was required, including demo-rated excavators, 10 tonne fully articulating dump trucks, and hydraulic grabs, all providing logistical challenges.
Enviropacific teams often work remotely to serve local communities better. However, the pandemic brought its own set of challenges. The remote location and project duration involved long days in a high-pressure environment; some sites had a 1.5-hour commute along precarious logging tracks after work each day. We implemented communication and a two-driver system to prevent accidents and injury.
We needed to practice social distancing and personal hygiene while living together. Our teams rose to the challenge, and the project secured over 300,000 injury-free work hours and an overwhelming amount of community support.
“It may well sound clichéd and it’s certainly unfashionably sensitive but, I believe that the team we developed and sustained for the duration of the works became a supportive, connected, and empathetic family unit. I believe it was the honesty and connectedness that we worked hard to maintain within our team and with good management it enabled such positive and appreciated works. It was genuinely a character forming experience out there and we all learnt much from our time in Gippsland.”
Sarah D’Alterio, Melbourne Local, Site Engineer, Enviropacific (Pictured left foreground)
AFTER THE DEVASTATION
“It was incredibly satisfying seeing the cleared sites, which could now be re-built on, or moved away from, harmful material, or simply just free of any physical reminder of what had been lost there.”
Will Magnus, Victorian Operations Manager, Enviropacific
- Total of 700 properties cleaned up across Victoria
- Enviropacific undertook 120 properties
- Average clean-up of 3 days per property
- Approximately 12,000 tonne of Bushfire Waste was sent to landfill
- Additional 10,000 tonne of scrap metal was cleared by hygienist and sent for recycling Significant recycling was achieved thanks to on-site separation efforts
- Following removal of waste, 100mm surface scrape of soils was undertaken
- Independent Occupational Hygienist clearance was obtained
Our team cleared over 120 properties and disposed of over 12,000 tonnes of harmful friable asbestos bushfire waste to landfill. We overcame logistical and communication challenges achieving our program objectives. We undertook over 300,000 work-hours injury-free and achieved >33% local industry participation.
The compassion of all persons involved in the 2020 Victorian Bushfire Recovery, led by Steve Wilson at Grocon, was overwhelmingly fulfilling. Enviropacific is proud to have played our role in helping to make good and repair the damaged Gippsland communities.
Enviropacific would like to thank those communities who welcomed us and like to think we have contributed something back by fulfilling our purpose to make these communities safer and healthier.