John Dee Warwick’s Warren Stiff with pumps designed to prevent future effluent spills into the Condamine River.
John Dee Warwick’s Warren Stiff with pumps designed to prevent future effluent spills into the Condamine River.

John Dee slams court outcome

JOHN Dee Warwick managing director Bob Hart is not happy with court action taken against them in what he describes as an “act of God”.

JOHN Dee Warwick managing director Bob Hart has slammed a court action brought by the State Government over the release of effluent into the Condamine River during massive flooding more than two years ago.

The company yesterday copped a $12,000 fine in the Warwick Magistrates Court, but for Mr Hart it’s the one-eyed attitude of the bureaucrats that has angered him the most.

One of Warwick’s biggest employers, John Dee was found guilty of breaching environmental regulations, thanks to rapid floodwaters which inundated the plant on the night of January 4, 2008.

The abattoir’s “surge ponds” – which collect wastewater, chemical residue and animal waste – were unable to withstand the worst flooding in Warwick in more than a decade and a quantity of effluent was carried into the river.

The former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), now the Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM), charged the company with what it termed the “direct release” of contaminants, which John Dee argued was an “act of God”.

In a statement released after yesterday’s sentencing by Magistrate Anne Thacker, Mr Hart told the Daily News he was “disappointed” with the decision of the court and the DERM action, describing it as “a blow to one of Warwick’s largest employers”.

“In January 2008, the highest Condamine River flood in 12 years overflowed John Dee’s surge ponds and as a consequence, the pond caps broke up and were carried down river,” Mr Hart said.

“In defending against DERM’s prosecution, John Dee insisted this event was an ‘act of God’ and not any ‘direct release’ of material.

“Central to DERM’s prosecution was a strict legal interpretation of the meaning of ‘direct release’, as it applied to material contained in John Dee Warwick’s EPA-approved surge ponds.”

Mr Hart said since the flooding event that caused the problem John Dee – a mainstay of the Warwick economy for nearly a century – had invested a further $250,000 to install the latest pumping technology recently developed in the United States.

He said the new technique effectively eliminated the use of surge ponds and should cope with emergency situations, like torrential rain.

“THIS is the first installation in Australia of this new pumping system and its US manufacturers have requested the use of our Warwick site to demonstrate their technology,” Mr Hart said.

“Details of the new equipment had been referred to DERM, but there has been no commitment from DERM, nor any recognition of the new techniques.

“We continue to wonder why DERM seemed to adopt a ‘prosecution at all costs’ approach to our case, while other apparently much worse spills, of more potent material as reported in the media, have not been prosecuted at all.”

Mr Hart said the meat processing industry was facing hard times due to high cattle prices, the high value of the Australian dollar and substantial increases in the number of live cattle exports further limiting supply to processors.

“The industry is under serious pressure – the recent closure of plants in Killarney, Pittsworth and Young in New South Wales demonstrate just how tough things are out there,” he said.

“By choosing not to recognise the extenuating circumstances of our case and by following a prosecution-only path, is indicative of DERM’s lack of understanding of the industry’s situation.”

Mr Hart went on to add that DERM’s approach to the case, including their decision to launch a prosecution in the first place without any prior negotiations with John Dee Warwick, was “most disappointing, particularly so as our surge pond system had been approved and inspected by EPA from time to time.”

The John Dee prosecution follows a sewage spill into the Condamine by the Southern Downs Regional Council in January this year, caused by poorly-maintained infrastructure.

The Daily News later revealed repairs to Warwick’s ageing sewer network have been an almost daily occurrence for nearly two years, yet no action was taken by DERM over the spill in January.

Lawyers for John Dee Warwick yesterday argued in court that the use by DERM of the term “direct release” of contaminants was misleading and implied the company had acted deliberately.

But Magistrate Thacker found the overflowing of the ponds, while caused by floodwaters, still constituted direct release.

She also found that the company had been aware of the risk since its development approval and EPA licence were granted in 1997, when the Environmental Protection Act was introduced.

A spokesman for Climate Change and Sustainability Minister Kate Jones told the Daily News the Minister would release a statement about the prosecution but nothing was forthcoming by time of printing last night.

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