Victoria’s Environmental Planning Authority is under fire for its role in helping contractors on the West Gate Tunnel project to dump toxic soil that had been contaminated with toxic PFAS chemicals.
An absolutely scathing report from the State Ombudsman found “there is little doubt
the EPA was under pressure to ‘fix’ the problem to get the project back on track”.
The EPA also failed to disclose to residents living near the dump sites of Bulla, Bacchus Marsh and Ravenhall that the chemicals were being dumped near their homes – with community groups only finding out through the media.
Toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are among a group of “forever chemicals” that build up in the environment and the human body, and have been linked to a range of serious medical conditions, including increased rates of cancer.
The risks of the chemicals, which were once used in fire retardants, first came to the public’s attention after a 2018 Senate hearing into the contamination of Defence sites in the Northern Territory and New South Wales.
A toxic situation
The West Gate Tunnel freeway, one of Premier Daniel Andrews’ signature Big Build infrastructure projects, runs under a number of industrial suburbs in Melbourne’s west, including Footscray and Yarraville.
According to the Ombudsman, the issues with the project began in 2019, when PFAS were detected in groundwater samples at several locations along the tunnel route.
This created two problems: it delayed the project and caused a cost blow-out.
The consortium working on the project, which includes Transurban, claimed its tunnel boring machines for the project could not be stopped once they were started, meaning work on the tunnelling could not begin until the EPA made a decision about what to do with the soil.
The EPA responded by helping the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning
create bespoke regulations to allow sites in Bulla, Bacchus Marsh and Ravenhall to receive the spoil.
The agency did this without knowing the exact levels of PFAS contamination in the spoil, and did not consult local residents about its plans. Nearby residents were left in the dark, only finding out that the chemicals were being dumped through the media.
“Issues can just get out of control in the public domain – they just catch fire,” a senior EPA official told the Ombudsman during the investigation.
A human rights issue
“Environmental decision making is an emerging area of human rights concern, and an increasingly real concern for millions of people.?All the more reason for the EPA to understand its role is not merely that of a science-based regulator, but one with significant community responsibilities,” Ombudsman Deborah Glass said in a statement.
“This may have achieved the bare minimum required by legislation, but it led to a yawning gulf between the EPA’s approach and the community’s expectations of how its environmental regulator should behave.
“The result was a lack of trust in the EPA as an independent authority and a perception that it put political and commercial interest ahead of its duties as a regulator of environmental health.”
In its statement, the EPA defended its processes, claiming it was based on a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of the risks to human health and the environment, but that it “should have done more to consult with the local communities”.
“We will use the Ombudsman’s report and her recommendations to ensure the improvements we are making to our organisation continue. This is part of our ongoing commitment to being a strong, effective, and science-based regulator that Victorians trust and respect,” EPA Victoria chief executive Lee Miezis said.