A series of pollution reports and health and safety concerns from the public has sparked an Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) investigation into allegedly potential breaches at the MED-X Healthcare Solutions waste management facility site in Sale.

The EPA Regional Manager, Renee Palmer, said the EPA was investigating potential breaches at the industrial site in Sale after a series of pollution reports from the public.

“Callers to EPA late in the afternoon and evening of Wednesday, April 5, reported smoke, odour and litter from the site, and EPA officers inspected the site the next day,” Ms Palmer said.

“The site duty holder is conducting a project trialling the use of pyrolysis (heating without oxygen) to investigate whether this is a suitable method of treating incontinence and manufacturing waste.

“The project has been operating under an EPA-issued authorisation of discharges or disposal, which allows the temporary trial to go ahead under strict conditions.”

In response to a lack of sustainable solutions for incontinence product waste from Australia’s residential aged care sector, the global incontinence product manufacturer Essity launched an Australian-first trial, Project Divert, in early February at the MED-X Healthcare Solutions facility in Sale.

The Project Divert trial utilises the CharMaker-patented pyrolysis technology developed by a Victorian environmental consulting firm, Earth Systems, which heats waste materials in the absence of oxygen, producing lower emissions than traditional incineration.

Committee members and coaches from Sale United Football Club, which are neighbours of the MED-X Healthcare Solutions facility on Raglan Street, have expressed health and safety concerns about the byproduct of the CharMaker – smoke, foul odour and litter – with one committee member reporting they spent hours clearing debris littered across the club’s grounds.

Litter strewn across Sale United Football Club’s main pitch from the CharMaker. Photo: Contributed

GO Soccer Mums coach, Madeleine Forbes, said the foul odour from the medical waste management facility was first noticed in mid-March.

“I was putting out cones and thought someone was illegally burning plastic,” Ms Forbes said.

“It’s common to be breathing in woodfire smoke while at training, but this was a different smell.

“I saw that there was smoke billowing from the top of the incinerator in the industrial block next door, and the wind was blowing it directly in our direction.

“We train on Wednesday from 5.30 pm until 6.30 pm, so I thought it crazy – firstly that council would allow something like this to operate next to a sporting facility, and secondly that they were running it after business hours – at a time where the oval and surrounding public spaces/footpaths would be at peak usage. Not to mention the childcare centre, right next to the oval, was still open.”

The SUFC treasurer, Cameron Irvine, tried to call MED-X Healthcare Solutions to request that the CharMaker be switched off but received no response.

“There was staff onsite as I saw a staff member up inspecting the machine as we were doing our drills,” Ms Forbes said.

“We have people with asthma and mothers who bring their young children and babies in prams to our sessions.

“We decided to move to the back oval where the smell was not as strong. I was concerned that the poor air quality would make players feel unwell or unable to participate and prevent mums from participating in future sessions if they can’t ensure their kids and babies will be safe if they bring them along.”

On Thursday, March 23, Mr Irvine approached the EPA as thick black smoke, litter and a toxic smell were discharging from the Charmaker in the industrial lot next door.

“You could literally see the fumes coming out of the machine, and the smell was really toxic,” Mr Irvine said.

“The wind was just blowing it right across our pitch, littering small amounts of plastic debris.

“Our Under 7s coach was in the club rooms with me, and I asked, ‘On a level from one to 10, how bad do you think the smell is?’

“He said, ‘I work in the sewerage department for Gippy Water, and it’s a 10’.

“It was really toxic.”

The following week, byproducts from the CharMaker forced SUFC to cancel all Latrobe Valley Soccer League Junior Country Championships squad training sessions as excessive smoke and odour from the patented pyrolysis technology were a concern to the health and safety of participants.

SUFC’s junior coordinator, Laurel Irvine, made another report to the EPA.

“The smoke was extreme, the pitch was littered with half-melted plastics and sanitary items, a few of these even had blood on them,” Ms Irvine said.

“It took me over an hour to remove the debris from our pitch.

“We had visiting players, from other clubs, with squad training on. This was called off.

“I’m all for recycling, but this is ridiculous and needs to be moved away from the homes, the early daycare centre right beside us, Scouts.

“The kids and players have been locked away with COVID restrictions. We are getting good numbers back outside in the fresh air, and this happens.”

Debris from the CharMaker cleared from Sale United Football Club grounds. Photo: Contributed

At the neighbouring sporting clubs training last Tuesday, the potent odour from the CharMaker at the MED-X Healthcare Solutions facility remained prominent.

SUFC committee members voiced concern about the time that EPA officers arrived at the site, about 2pm, noting that the CharMaker is only on late in the afternoons, not during the day; therefore, the full effects were not discernible.

“I fully support sustainable solutions; what’s in question is the locality of the machine,” Mr Irvine said.

“To cancel the Junior Country squad training, kids from as far as Moe had to turn around and go home without training.

“So it’s not just affecting us as a club; it’s affecting us as a club and people, kids, from different towns who have travelled to Sale to train.”

EPA investigations remain ongoing into alleged potential breaches at the industrial site in Sale.

“While the reports to EPA indicated pollution affecting a nearby sports ground, the risk to human health is considered to be low, and normal hygiene practices such as covering any open wounds and washing hands would apply,” Ms Palmer said.

Wellington Shire Council was recently made aware of the Project Divert trial and is now working with the EPA to determine whether the trial requires council permits or other state government authorisation.

“To date, Council has not received any correspondence from the community via its customer action request process, and residents are asked to contact the Environment Protection Authority Victoria on 1300 372 842 if they have feedback about the trial,” a spokesperson from Wellington Shire Council said.

Incontinence waste and woodchips turned into biochar on March 8 2023. Photo: Stefan Bradley

Essity reported that after a month of operations, Earth Systems informed the manufacturer that a small quantity of thermally treated plastic bag waste had blown onto the neighbouring soccer field.

“They also reported there was a smoke emission caused by a build-up inside the machine,” an Essity spokesperson said.

“Community wellbeing is important to us and we take these events seriously.

“Earth Systems informed us that they investigated and put in place appropriate controls to address the issues.”

The Project Divert trial has now ended after six weeks of operations that processed about seven tonnes of absorbent hygiene waste from aged care facilities throughout Victoria.

“About half of the waste generated by aged care facilities comes from absorbent hygiene products, so this trial is playing an important role in finding ways to minimise the environmental impact of this waste,” an Essity spokesperson said.

“The results will be used by Essity to assess the commercial viability for a large-scale incontinence waste disposal solution for our customers.

“It’s important to remember that this trial is designed to understand how this technology can help solve a significant waste challenge and any subsequent commercial scale operation would incorporate learnings from this trial, including the potential location and facility requirements.”

The public can report pollution by calling EPA’s 24-hour hotline on 1300 372 842 or providing details online at epa.vic.gov.au/report-pollution/reporting-pollution