The fire came after MRI was barred from accepting any new e-waste in March by order of the Environment Protection Authority, which discovered the business had amassed an inappropriately large stockpile of materials. And in July the EPA issued a formal warning threatening to suspend MRI’s license to continue operating the facility.
MRI, which is also known as MRI (Aust) Pty Ltd, is authorised to hold a maximum of 60 tonnes of e-waste and 20 tonnes of unsorted batteries. It’s unclear how much excess material was stored on the site at the time of the fire.
The components of batteries and electronics are considered toxic to health and the environment, especially when damaged or exposed to fire.
The company collects and recycles e-waste on behalf of major retailers, telcos and IT companies, schools, city councils and the Department of Defence.
EPA chief executive Dr Cathy Wilkinson said MRI (Aust) Pty was under “active ongoing investigations” for what the regulator considered a “serious issue”.
“After our investigations found issues of non-compliance, EPA issued a Minor Works Pollution Abatement Notice against MRI (Aust) Pty Ltd to cease accepting any further waste until they were within licence limits [in March],” she said.
“After further EPA investigations, the company was also issued a show cause notice in July demanding MRI provide reasons why they should not have their licence suspended, alleging non-compliance with the conditions of the licence.”
A spokesman for MRI said while it was inappropriate to comment on its previous communications with regulators: “We must state that we have worked hard to ensure that we complied with our operational licence conditions.
“We are engaging with officials from the EPA and WorkSafe Victoria and complying with any health and safety orders issued as part of the recovery process.”
MRI also said it would like to express its appreciation to emergency responders for fighting the blaze. “We are grateful there was no loss of life or injury.”
Melbourne Water has reported that contaminated fire water run off, which had spread into nearby Merlynston Creek and several kilometres downstream to Jack Roper Lake while the blaze was being battled, has been contained and now cleared. The EPA and water authority is continuing to test the water.
It is not the first time MRI has fallen foul of the regulator, with the company convicted and fined $15,000 by a magistrate in 2005 for storing waste without a licence, contravening its licence conditions and providing incorrect information to the EPA. It was also ordered to pay $13,459 in costs.
There have been a string of major fires in recent years at industrial premises, plastic recyclers, chemical waste facilities and illicit waste dumps across the city.
A number of incidents, including a massive blaze in April 2019 at the premises of now-defunct chemical recycler Bradbury Industrial Services, have come after regulators have discovered operators storing huge volumes of highly flammable materials such as plastics or solvents in breach of license conditions.
This month also marks the two-year anniversary of one of the worst industrial blazes in two decades, which erupted after millions of litres of chemical waste was illegally stored in a warehouse in West Footscray.
Chris Vedelago is an investigations reporter for The Age with a special interest in crime and justice.