A Hunter man is in a race against the clock to fight a draft clean up notice ordering him to clear contaminated material he had delivered to his property believing it was clean fill.
The Newcastle Heraldreported in May that Michael Corling was waiting to hear if he would be forced to pay what he estimated could be $1 million to clean up the fill that he ordered from a Sydney-based company.
Now, that day is looming after the Environmental Protection Agency served a draft clean up notice on Mr Corling despite initially ordering the waste contractor who transported the fill to deal with the problem.
He has until Monday to provide comment on the notice.
The saga began when Mr Corling had 1987 tonnes of material delivered to his Millers Forest property in October to build a flood mound for a house.
However, before the fill arrived, the EPA had found potential asbestos at the site of the waste contractor the fill came from. The fill was then removed from the site prior to the laboratory test confirming asbestos was present.
"Why didn't they stop the crap from leaving while they were testing it?" Mr Corling said.
The EPA says it "did not have sufficient evidence to stop the operations based on the inspection and prior to lab confirmation".
When the EPA knocked on Mr Corling's door and told him the fill on his property was contaminated, he said he was "immediately devastated".
"There are people up the road who had something similar happen and as soon as the EPA told me it was contaminated I knew it was all over," he said. "All of my hopes and dreams were shattered."
Despite the sinking feeling, Mr Corling was still under the impression the issue would be dealt with by the waste contractor, after a clean up notice was served on them by the EPA.
But the EPA then claimed its investigation found that fill material had previously been delivered to the Millers Forest property and there was "insufficient evidence" to determine the source of the asbestos recently found there.
Mr Corling said the old fill in question is not only separate from the new fill, but was also legally approved in 2000. He said an EPA officer attended his property on December 12 and did not find suspicious material in the old fill.
He asked the EPA for the response the waste contractor provided to the clean up notice issued on them, but was told he would need to make an application through the Government Information Public Access Act 2009 (the GIPA Act).
In its response to The Herald, the EPA put the onus onto the property owner, saying "the community is advised to be aware of the dangers of mistakenly accepting contaminated or illegal dirt fill on their property".
"Check with your local council on the proper process before accepting fill, use a reputable supplier, ask where the fill has come from, record delivery details, and look out for odd materials in the load," a spokesperson said.
Mr Corling said he checked and followed the instructions of his council development approval, used an operator who has built flood mounds all over Millers Forest and surrounding areas, and said the fill came from a fully accredited facility, which has all the proper licensing to certify and supply an Excavated Natural Materials certificate.
And despite all that, Mr Corling said it shouldn't be up to him to take care of waste he did not contaminate and feels he is being railroaded by the EPA, who are "too scared" to take on the waste contractor.
"Under section 91 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act, the land owner can be held responsible if there is contamination on their property," Mr Corling said. "The people who dump the crap can have a party.
"No one is saying this is so clearly wrong it will be fixed. Nobody is saying this is a travesty, this is a debacle. It's perfectly fine and legitimate in this great country that we could be done over for this.
Mr Corling said the issue had been "all consuming" for him and his wife.
"It's the only thing I can think about," he said. "It has taken over mine and my wife's lives. I don't know what I would do if I have to pay for this - $1 million - that's life destroying. We'd be destitute."
IN OTHER NEWS:
Mr Corling contacted Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison and Shadow Environment Minister Kate Washington, who have both approached NSW Environment Minister Matthew Kean about the problem.
The Herald contacted Mr Kean's office to see if he was doing anything about the matter, but was referred back onto the EPA.
"It's just insane," Ms Aitchison said. "The EPA were directed there by someone they were investigating. It seems they're barking up the wrong tree."
Ms Washington described the situation as a "completely improper application of the law".
"If the EPA doesn't amend its draft notice, it's a complete injustice," she said. "The victim is going to end up paying the price instead of the polluter."
The EPA said it was working with the property owners to "assist in finding a suitable solution to manage the fill received on the property" and had "provided an option to deal with the asbestos contaminated waste on site, rather than requiring removal from the property, which provides a more cost-effective solution than requiring off-site disposal".
EPA investigations into the waste contractor's operations continue and the spokesperson said "appropriate action will be taken against the waste contractor if there is a breach of environmental legislation".