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Residents fight proposal to store contaminated West Gate Tunnel soil near Bacchus Marsh school

More than a thousand people from a community west of Melbourne have turned out to protest a proposal for contaminated soil from the West Gate Tunnel Project to be stored in a former coal mine.

Key points:

  • The Bacchus Marsh Community Coalition is concerned about the presence of the industrial chemical PFAS in the soil
  • The principal of a school 500m from the proposed dump site said he was worried the material would be untested
  • Transurban said there would be stringent environmental controls in place to protect the community

Citizens from Bacchus Marsh gathered in the main street to express concerns about the impact potentially toxic soil could have on the community if stored in Maddingley Brown Coal Mine, just 5 kilometres from the town centre.

The Bacchus Marsh Community Coalition, which is leading the campaign, is demanding further consultation and information from the project builders Transurban and the State Government.

Spokesperson Kat Barlow said the coalition’s main concern was the potential for PFAS (poly-fluoroalkyl substances) to leak into the waterways.

The industrial chemical has been found in the soil near the tunnel site, prompting a protracted industrial dispute and debate over where the contaminated soil should be stored.

“The Parwan Creek runs directly through the Maddingley Brown Coal site, which runs into Werribee River, which runs into all of our food,” Ms Barlow said.

She said the community felt it was under attack, with the dump site less than 500 metres from Bacchus Marsh Grammar School and adjacent to farming lands.

“[We’re protesting] to be able to protect the health of our people, the health of our rivers, and to protect the heritage overlays and protect this beautiful town,” Ms Barlow said.

“It’s not just food that we’re growing for people in Bacchus Marsh — it affects all of Victoria.

“No one in their right mind would want this in their backyard, never mind in a place which has potential to leak into the waterways that feed a whole community and feed the whole of Victoria.”

Community ‘in the dark’

The principal of Bacchus Marsh Grammar School, Andrew Neal, said community consultation had not been adequate.

“I think the community is concerned on a number of levels. It’s concerned about the fact that it’s not been an active part in the process and it is in the dark,” he said.

PFAS led to the shutdown of the Country Fire Authority’s Fiskville training college in 2015.

It has been linked overseas to an increased risk of some cancers, but Australian authorities deny the link.

A portrait of Andrew Neal outside near a green paddock.
Andrew Neal is worried the soil may be reclassified as dangerous at some point in the future.(ABC News: Sarah Jane Bell)

Mr Neal said he was concerned that up to 230 trucks of soil per day would be going to the site untested.

“It will go into open bays and will potentially stay there for up to 21 days before it is tested,” he said.

“What we don’t want to be is a site where everything is fine at the moment and we’re left with 2.3 million tonnes of material that will potentially be reclassified as dangerous.”Sarah Jane Bell@SarahJaneBell94

A State Government spokesperson said project lead Transurban and the builder are working to find a long term solution to manage the soil from tunnelling and that no decision about where the soil will go has been made. @abcmelbourne @abcnews

The school has called for more data to be released so an independent assessment can be undertaken.

“What we’re after is a situation where we can have direct dialogue with the Government about the nature of the material that’s given, and the data to make our own judgments, which is really the essence of democracy,” Mr Neal said.

The Bacchus Marsh Soccer Club has also taken a stand, returning a $5,000 sponsorship from Maddingley Brown Coal Mine for the 2020 season.

Club president Liam Kiely said the club committee decided they couldn’t support the project, which was “a risk, from a public health point of view”.

Extra measures promised to contain soil

The Calleja Group — which owns the former mine — has proposed to build a soil-processing facility that would operate all day, every day for up to two years.

In a fact-sheet prepared for the community, Maddingley Brown Coal said the site was a designated state-significant waste hub and was licensed to receive industrial waste.

A group of children and an adult hold up signs protesting against a toxic dump.
More than 1,000 people, including school kids, turned out to protest against the proposal.(ABC News: Sarah Jane Bell)

The company said testing showed it was possible low levels of PFAS may be found in the soil from where the tunnel will be built and that extra measures would be put in place to contain the soil.

It is proposed the soil would be unloaded in a covered area and sent for laboratory testing before being disposed of in a purpose-built containment cell, or the existing landfill site.

Any soil that could not be disposed at the site would be taken to an approved facility by truck for disposal or treatment, with the process to be overseen by an Environmental Protection Authority-accredited environmental auditor.

The company said it would provide funds to the Moorabool Shire Council for road maintenance and upgrades required as a result of the project.

‘No decisions have been made’

In a statement, Transurban said the project parties were working with EPA Victoria and a number of soil disposal facilities to finalise plans for tunnelling.

“The project parties and Maddingley Brown Coal continue to engage with the local community and relevant stakeholders to hear their feedback and answer their questions about Maddingley Brown Coal’s proposal,” Transurban said.

A boy with a sign that says I don't want a toxic waste dump next to my school.
The tunnel soil would be taken to a former coal mine less than 500 metres from a school.(ABC News: Sarah Jane Bell)

“Any facilities that are considered will have stringent environmental controls in place to protect the community.

“No decisions have been made yet.

“A number of approvals would be required, including from the EPA Victoria.”

Last week, Premier Daniel Andrews said Bacchus Marsh Grammar had been located next to a brown coal mine since it was opened.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves — safety is very important and the process we are going through is not about compromising safety, it’s about guaranteeing safety,” he said.

He maintained that no decision had been made about where the PFAS soil would go.

“The final decision that will have to be made at some point about the location of that soil, any site that’s chosen will be maintained and designed and built to the highest standard,” he said.

“We are dealing with this challenge because we refuse to take shortcuts on safety, whether it be for those who are building the project or indeed communities that may well be adjacent to purpose-built facilities that would meet the highest standards.”

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/

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