Despite claiming it has a “zero tolerance” to misconduct, the EPA has not completed an investigation it opened in November 2020 into claims Recycal had been running a rogue e-waste recycling operation.
The investigation was sparked by information, including photographs, provided in November 2020 by a confidential source, that allegedly showed Recycal had been amassing batteries, airbag detonators and other potentially dangerous materials in violation of fire safety, environmental and dangerous goods regulations.
The EPA told The Age its investigation had remained active over the five-month period, and included surveillance of Recycal’s operations. But the agency has refused to confirm whether it conducted any inspections as part of its investigation, citing legal complications from its current actions involving Recycal.
“As there are further investigations under way, EPA will be limited in the information it can share publicly but will act to protect community safety immediately as required,” the spokesman said.
Safety experts have questioned whether the stockpile of airbag detonators presents a threat.
“It’s important that they are handled and stored appropriately. You don’t want to be nearby [if the devices are not stored appropriately], let’s put it that way,” said Carl Liersch, managing director of automotive safety company APV.
“It’s not likely it will create a fire but what you will have is the sudden release of explosive gasses and if you are getting these things popping off one after another it’s not the safest place to be around.”
WorkSafe, which is responsible for regulating the safe disposal of airbag detonators, said it was “making inquiries” in light of the discoveries at the Ringwood property.
Photographs obtained by The Age show a significant number of the devices visible in the stockpile carry the branding of luxury car company BMW, which was forced to recall millions of airbags in 2018 due to injuries and deaths caused when they accidentally exploded.
“While we acknowledge the components in the images are BMW branded, we are unaware of their origins. Furthermore, BMW Group Australia has stringent processes in place for the safe and environmentally-sound disposal of affected parts,” a BMW spokesman said.
Recycal director Douglas Rowe said that while the business had made “mistakes”, its goal was to work with regulators to ensure recycling is done safely, efficiently and commercially to prevent material going to landfill.
“We’ll sit down with them and work it out. We are not going anywhere, we will fix what is needed to be done, will be the leaders in this area of recycling, and have a reputation for doing that and we have a reputation in spending a lot of money to get a lot of things right,” he said.
Mr Rowe said the build up in batteries and airbags had been caused by delays in getting equipment repaired during the COVID lockdown. He also said Recycal had been misled by a client about the type and poor condition of the batteries inside the containers found on the property.
Mr Rowe also claimed “98 per cent” of the airbags were either already deactivated or were not the explosive type that is considered high-risk.
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Chris Vedelago is an investigations reporter for The Age with a special interest in crime and justice.