In a campaign to “reclaim the air we breathe and the quality of our lives” Clayton resident Bill Pontikis is acting on behalf of frustrated residents and migrant groups in leading the newly formed Toxic Odour Action Group (TOAG).

The President of the Clayton Traders Association in Victoria and founder of TOAG believes the Environment Protection Act’s (EPA) process of communicating to non-English speaking communities is inconsistent and far from transparent, leaving people confused, frustrated and isolated as they suffer from exposure to harmful toxic odours.

“While the EPA has made some effort to engage with the community, it is very understandable why a large number of our local Greek community attending forums on this issue are visibly angry and frustrated.

Their voices are not being heard, and are seemingly sidelined by EPA’s own process,” Mr Pontikis said. Landfills, recycling materials and concrete crushing businesses, located in the northern sections of the Kingston Green Wedge, have been discharging odours across residential and business areas for many years.

The stench of rotting waste has resulted in the degradation of air quality to such an extent that public health is deteriorating, and the quality of life has been steadily declining, Mr Pontikis said.

“Residents are frustrated and the smell is making them ill at home,” Mr Pontikis said, adding that children are distracted from their studies by the smell at school, workers are finding their occupational health at the workplace miserable and local traders are losing customers.

“As a community, we are suffering physically, emotionally, and financially from the impact of mismanaged waste management,” he said.

According to a number of local Greek residents in contact with Mr Pontikis, the 24-hour hotline provided by the EPA has been plagued with resourcing issues and is at best inconsistent with the information and service it provides.

The first time Mr Pontikis used the hotline, after a number of his customers complained about not being able to get through to the EPA, he found himself facing similar difficulties.

“The second time when I did manage to get through I was informed by a customer service representative that the EPA were currently not set up to provide interpreting services and that the person reporting the problem would need to provide their own interpreting resource,” he said.

Following a series of phone calls Mr Pontikis was finally informed of an external number that people from non-English backgrounds could use. This number, however, was resourced not by the EPA but independently by the Federal Government’s Department of Immigration and was only available for limited hours during the day.

“It’s not like the odours happen according to when a customer service line is available… in fact a number of my customers have suggested that they are worst hit by the odours during the period that the interpreter service is not available,” Mr Pontikis said.

Mr Pontikis is particularly concerned that the externally provided Department of Immigration interpreter service can be extremely exhausting for an elderly person with limited to no English speaking ability. “Waiting times can be often in excess of ten minutes with no guarantee of getting through,” he said.

There is currently no direction on the EPA’s website for people from non-English speaking backgrounds. The EPA accepts that this is a serious problem and is aware it has been a serious problem for a long time, Mr Pontikis said. “They need to follow this with a commitment to better resource and support a diverse local community,” he added.

In one particular case an elderly Greek resident of South Clayton, Bill Rossios, lodged a complaint about a pollution issue on March 7. More than a week later the EPA arrived at his home and set up a monitor, which remained on his property for a number of days, before the EPA returned to remove the instrument.

Now almost two months later, Mr Rossios is yet to receive any kind of response from the EPA about the outcome of the testing on his property, as well as the outcome of his complaint.

 The South Clayton resident said the problem still persists. “Sadly Mr Rossios’ case is not an isolated one,” Mr Pontikis said.

“It’s the kind of experience that leaves the Greek community, as well as other ethnic communities, feeling disenfranchised and locked out of this very important process of reporting problems affecting their health… They just want to be heard, and for their concerns to be listened to.”

“The current process is in effect, denying people their basic rights according to the Law [Environment Protection Act], on the grounds of language barriers.”