Soil samples commissioned by Transurban and presented to public environmental hearings on the $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel did not test for potentially carcinogenic chemicals PFAS.
A leading contamination expert has hit out at the “omission”, which points to a possible lack of PFAS testing early on in the project.
Builders CPB Contractors and John Holland are trying to exit the project, alleging the amount of PFAS soil was underestimated in the $5 billion construction contract it signed with Transurban.
The tolling giant claims it tested for PFAS contamination, but the only public document detailing the project’s soil samples shows that they were tested for contaminants such as arsenic, asbestos and lead– not PFAS.
The report by consultancy firm Golder Associates, presented to the project’s Environmental Effects Statement on behalf of Transurban, did however warn that PFAS contamination was high-risk at specific hot spots.
Associate Professor Robert Niven, an environmental engineer from the University of NSW who has spent more than 30 years studying contamination, said the exclusion of PFAS soil samples was an “important omission”.
“They’ve tested for a large suite of different classes of chemicals, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have included PFAS in that list,” he said.
Professor Niven, whose expert advice helped guide a federal inquiry into PFAS contamination, said when the Golder report was created in early 2017, “there was a little bit more awareness about PFAS, but perhaps not enough”.
The Victorian Environment Protection Authority had no hard rules on PFAS management before 2018, despite NSW having waste classifications in place.
The Andrews government closed the former Fiskville CFA academy in 2015 after a number of CFA staff and volunteers contracted cancer, and held a parliamentary inquiry in 2016 into the contamination of the site with chemicals including PFAS.
The EPA had planned to give more clarity on PFAS classifications in an update of its industrial waste guidelines, but this has been delayed a year due to COVID-19 along with changes to the EPA Act.
Australian Workers Union secretary Ben Davis said if PFAS testing was undertaken, “then of course it should have been in the publicly-available EES [Environmental Effects Statement] documents. The people who work on the project have a right to know.”
Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan slammed Transurban and the project’s builders on Tuesday over the axing of 230 white-collar workers and a threat to stand down 400 more in coming weeks. It comes just four months after 140 tunnelers were laid off.
“This behaviour that we’re seeing most recently from these companies and also Transurban is absolutely disgraceful,” Ms Allan said. “You do have to question is this a tactical move by Transurban and its builders in an attempt to in some way extort the Victorian government, and by extension the Victorian community, to help them sort out this issue.”
Ms Allan said the Victorian government would not consider any requests for extra funding to help resolve the crisis.
Thousands of tonnes of soil have been dug up along the project and are being stockpiled along the West Gate Freeway before tunnelling begins.
But Professor Niven warned that simply using a tarpaulin to cover stockpiles of PFAS soil would not prevent it from leaching out into the water system.
“In my experience of contaminated soil, this is a really bad way to store contaminated soil, since it does not adequately prevent the entry of rainfall to the soil, nor the leaching of contaminants from the stockpile into underlying soils,” he said.
Sources close to the project say “weak guidance” from the Victorian EPA meant the road’s consultants were “unprepared” for a tougher regulatory regime on PFAS.
In February, Transurban chief executive Scott Charlton blamed “evolving” EPA rules for delays on the project. “Historically the PFAS was an unregulated contaminant and was considered fill material, but that arrangement with the EPA has been evolving over the past few years,” he said.
When asked on Tuesday to explain why the soil testing reports did not mention screening for PFAS, Transurban referred The Age back to Mr Charlton’s previous comments.
The EPA introduced a new PFAS threshold in 2018, after the signing of the West Gate Tunnel contract in 2017.
The contaminants tested in the Golder report complied with Victoria’s current industrial waste guidelines.
Secret internal soil samples prepared for the project in late 2018 and leaked to The Age revealed very high levels of PFAS in the project’s worst hot spots.
Opposition transport infrastructure spokesman David Davis said: “Why didn’t Labor set the rules on PFAS and the toxic soil transparently from the start? Its incompetence pure and simple.”
An EPA spokesman said: “EPA continues to take a strict and precautionary approach to PFAS.”
Source: Timna Jacks The Age