Thousands of tonnes of PFAS-contaminated soil are being stored outdoors under plastic sheets in Melbourne’s inner west, as the toxic soil crisis continues to loom over the $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel project.
A large soil stockpile is now sitting on the project’s construction site on Mackenzie Road in West Melbourne, with a sign warning of PFAS contamination.
The soil has been classified by Victoria’s environmental watchdog as Category B, which is the second-highest level of contamination.
The Environment Protection Authority requires builders to store contaminated soil on-site, before approval is given to move it to an appropriate landfill. But this type of waste is accepted by just one Victorian landfill.
PFAS is a group of potentially carcinogenic chemicals now considered so hazardous that its prolonged use ultimately shut down the CFA training college in Fiskville.
West Gate Tunnel workers say there are about six PFAS stockpiles across the huge project’s construction sites, including at the M80 Ring Road in Brooklyn, Williamstown Road in Port Melbourne, Buchanan Road in Brooklyn and Footscray Road in West Melbourne.
It comes as internal documents show two separate PFAS stockpiles – made up of 4000 tonnes of soil – were kept outdoors, under a sheet of tarpaulin, on tunnel work site near Coode Island last year.
A 2500-tonne stockpile on Sims Street and a 1500-tonne stockpile on Footscray Road – both referred to as “PFAS storage” – were featured in a presentation to the project’s building supervisors early last year.
“It is now obvious that all those with influence and control over the project all knew about the levels and amounts of contamination … and did nothing,” the CFMMEU’s health and safety unit manager Gerry Ayers said.
“There needs to be some very serious decisions made that ensure all the contaminated soil is removed safely and correctly disposed of.”
Tunnelling is yet to start on the project as joint building venture CPB Contractors and John Holland and Transurban are at an impasse over how to dispose PFAS-contaminated soil.
Workers were instructed to cover the stockpiles on Sims Street and Footscray Road “to stop run-off and erosion”, spray water mist to avoid dust and wash skin exposed to the chemicals.
The stockpiles are understood to have been there from late 2018 to mid-2019 before they were transported to two Victorian landfills – Cleanaway in Ravenhall and Hi-Quality in Bulla.
Tolling giant Transurban is digging up soil near Coode Island to build ramps linking its West Gate Tunnel to the Port of Melbourne. Coode Island is a contamination hotspot after 200 tonnes of firefighting foam laced with PFAS was used to put out a toxic fire sparked by a chemical explosion in 1991.
However, most of the road’s soil is believed to have low or no traces of PFAS.
A government spokeswoman said soil being stored on-site was being managed in line with all EPA and WorkSafe requirements.
“With the appropriate measures in place, storing the soil is not harmful to the public or the environment,” the spokeswoman said.
A Transurban spokeswoman said it was not uncommon for soil to be covered with tarpaulins and weighed down at construction sites before being taken to landfill.
“Any contaminated soil that is dug up on the project is managed in line with EPA requirements to keep workers and the community safe and taken to existing licensed landfill sites for safe disposal.”
A former petrol storage site in Spotswood and an old textile factory in Yarraville within the West Gate Tunnel project area are also believed to be contaminated with PFAS.
A high risk of PFAS in groundwater along the West Gate Freeway and the M80 Ring Road has also been identified.
Meanwhile, the people of Bacchus Marsh, about 60 kilometres west of Melbourne, are fighting a potential plan to dump tonnes of contaminated soil from the tunnel project at the Maddingley Brown Coal landfill site.
Community members, who will protest against the potential dumping at a rally in the town on Tuesday evening, fear the PFAS-contaminated soil could leach into the surrounding soil and water if it is dumped at the landfill site.
Source: Timna Jacks www.theage.com.au
with Zach Hope