Waste companies in Ipswich have been poisoning residents for decades, toxifying the air and making life unbearable. For people living in the suburbs surrounding the Swanbank Industrial Area in Ipswich’s south, it can be a hazard even to step outside.
The Courier-Mail recently reported that residents are experiencing nausea and difficulty breathing; those with asthma experience acute attacks, some requiring hospitalisation. People are sharing images of full body rashes and hives. Families are wary of letting their children play outside because of the stench. When the odours are at their worst, people are forced to stay inside their homes, plugging any gaps that could let the air in.
Since 2018, there have been 25,000 complaints relating to the foul odour. The Australian Cancer Atlas reports that residents adjacent to Swanbank are diagnosed with lung cancer at rates 47 percent higher than the Australian average. Despite repeated calls from the community for a public health inquiry, the state Labor government looks the other way.
Waste management is a highly profitable business, employing few people and paying minimal fees. During the two-decade rule of Country Party Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, laws were passed allowing disused coal mines to be abandoned without rehabilitation, leaving what can be described as a “moonscape” of open-cut pits.
In the 1990s, waste companies approached the local council with a “solution”; transform the area into a dumping ground. Under Campbell Newman’s LNP government (2012-15), rubbish taxes were cut, making Queensland one of the cheapest states in which to dump waste. Companies rushed to the area; now Swanbank receives waste from across the east coast of Australia, including 42 percent of Queensland’s total.
Two companies are infamous among locals: Cleanaway and Remondis. In early 2022, rainwater flooded an exposed waste cell at Cleanaway’s New Chum facility, mixing with contaminated waste and releasing hydrogen sulphide gas. Residents described the effect as smelling like “rotten eggs”, worsening the already ubiquitous stench.
In March this year, the state regulator charged Cleanaway with “wilfully causing an environmental nuisance relating to odour”, issuing $37,000 in fines. For a company that made more than $145 million in profits that year, calling this a slap on the wrist would be an overstatement. Meanwhile, the site remains completely exposed.
Remondis operates a large site in Swanbank. In 2018, the company received government approval to construct a $400 million incinerator to burn waste at 800 degrees. Depending on what is burned, emissions can include heavy metals such as lead and mercury, toxic chemicals and particulate matter. The company has attempted to greenwash the development, arguing that burning garbage is a sustainable energy alternative. The harms, though, are obvious.
Research suggests waste incineration has an incredibly detrimental effect on public health and the environment. The pollutants linger in the atmosphere, travelling potentially hundreds of kilometres. Sustained community activism from local organisations such as Ipswich Battles Incinerator Schemes has been critical in undermining support for the incinerator and deterring Remondis for now.
But the waste companies continue to search for ways to avoid accountability. Cleanaway recently announced a $700 million incinerator to be constructed near Beaudesert, just an hour’s drive from Surfers Paradise. Emissions from the site would blanket the entire Gold Coast hinterland.
Facilities as harmful as the ones at Swanbank shouldn’t be within a hundred miles of populated areas. But under capitalism, public health and the need for businesses to make profits are in direct conflict. Waste and other polluting industries are drawn closer to developed areas so that they can access public infrastructure and labour, hence reducing costs. But proximity to such blatantly unsafe facilities devalues property in the surrounding area, where only working-class people live.
The scenes would be impossible to imagine in the leafy upper-class suburb of Brisbane’s Ascot. Ultimately, it will take sustained campaigning to challenge the business-as-usual capitalism that has been poisoning Ipswich residents for years. Ipswich activists are already building a strong foundation.