Northern NSW flood clean-up of rivers collects tonnes of rubbish but still has months to go

From caravans to water tanks, children’s toys to surfboards, tonnes of rubbish have been removed from rivers in the far north of New South Wales as part of a mammoth clean-up of flood debris.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is managing the work, which started with aerial mapping of the flooded waterways in March.

EPA flood program manager Martin Puddey said the survey showed priority areas.

“We can use that to target areas or identify if something is really hazardous like a big drum filled with pesticides, water tanks, pieces of jetty and pontoons, stuff that is partially submerged and could be a navigational hazard.”

aerial image of large amount of rubbish near river
Images from aerial surveys show the flood debris on shorelines and riverbeds.(Supplied: EPA)

A dive salvage company retrieved a Return and Earn container deposit machine in the Tweed that had washed away from a Murwillumbah carpark and flushed kilometers downstream to a site near Condong.

Mr Puddey said it took a 140-tonne crane to lift it out of the river.

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Return and Earn machine salvaged from Tweed River(Supplied: Environment Protection Authority)

“It was a really complex operation,” he said.

woman reaches over edge of boat to get surfboard
Marine contractor Frankie Bryant retrieves a surfboard found floating in the river.(ABC North Coast: Bronwyn Herbert)

Specialist marine contractor Frankie Bryant said her team had been concentrating for the past month on the Wilsons River near Lismore, which was at the center of the natural disaster.

Ms Bryant said the larger items were often easier to remove, while the most challenging was plastic waste entangled in trees on the riverbank.

“We can actually sometimes get stuck in little areas where you just find me up pulling small pieces of plastic,” she said.

worker uses a long implement to bring down plastic caught in tree branches, near river
Contractors remove plastic entangled in trees on the edge of the Wilsons River.(ABC North Coast: Bronwyn Herbert)

The rubbish is collected on smaller boats then moved to skip bins on bars.

Cranes then lift the skips onto trucks to be taken to a nearby waste facility.

Larger waste is collected with excavators that are floated around the river on barges.

excavator on floating barge in brown water
Large equipment is moved on floating bars to remove large waste.(ABC North Coast: Bronwyn Herbert)

Ms Bryant said there was a huge effort made to try and return items wherever possible.

“I kind of wish everyone engraved their name on every piece of furniture or equipment so we could get it back to them.”

For contractor John Fletcher, it has been, at times, an emotional experience wading through personal items.

The EPA expects it will take another two months to complete the clean up, including using sonar technology to detect large, hazardous items lodged on the riverbed.

“You can’t see them,” Mr Puddey said.

“They’re a huge risk to navigation and people’s safety.”

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