Ombudsman scathing of EPA over West Gate Tunnel toxic soil dumping

Ombudsman scathing of EPA over West Gate Tunnel toxic soil dumping

Key points

  • The Victorian Ombudsman criticised the Environment Protection Authority’s decision to approve three sites to receive 3 million tonnes of contaminated rock and soil from the West Gate Tunnel Project. 
  • The project was initially set to cost $5.5 billion but has since blown out to $10 billion. 
  • Deborah Glass said the EPA’s communication of  decisions fell well short of reasonable community expectations.

The Victorian Ombudsman has criticised the environmental watchdog over the dumping of toxic soil from the West Gate Tunnel project in the western suburbs, accusing the agency of ignoring the human rights of residents and bowing to government pressure to “fix” a political headache.

The $10 billion project has been mired in controversy over a long-running dispute that centres on the handling of about 3 million tonnes of soil. An unknown portion of the soil is believed to be contaminated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals – the potential carcinogens known as PFAS.

The Victorian Ombudsman was scathing of the EPA’s handling of the dumping of toxic soil from the West Gate Tunnel project. Credit:Wayne Taylor

Ombudsman Deborah Glass launched an investigation into the Environment Protection Authority’s decision to approve three sites to receive the contaminated rock and soil, and whether it followed the appropriate process.

The new toll road, built by Transurban, is running at least two years behind its original timeframe and the cost has blown out to $10 billion – more than double Transurban’s original estimate. The project was originally due to be completed by 2023, it is now not expected to finish before 2025.

Glass tabled her report in Parliament on Tuesday morning. She said while the EPA complied with its legislation, its communication of decisions fell well short of reasonable community expectations.

“This failure to provide appropriate information and opportunities for communities to participate when making its approval decisions for sites to receive the spoil for the project was unreasonable,” Glass said.

“It also gave no specific consideration to human rights, even though human rights were very much a focus for affected communities, who were worried about the impact of PFAS on themselves and their children, as well as waterways and wildlife.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass tabled her report into Parliament on Tuesday. Credit:Chris Hopkins

“The EPA told us consulting the community would be a waste of time – in effect, they thought there was no point in consulting because they knew what the community thought. But the lack of meaningful engagement caused unnecessary social, psychological and financial stress to the impacted communities, who felt left in the dark.”

Senior officials denied to the investigation there was any government interference, but Glass noted in her report there was “little doubt the EPA was under pressure to fix the problem to get the project back on track”.

She noted that the watchdog helped the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning develop bespoke regulations to pave the way for potential sites to receive the toxic soil, which was eventually approved to be sent to a landfill in Bulla in Melbourne’s north.

“It is vital that the EPA must not only be independent but be seen to be independent to maintain public confidence in the objectivity of its decisions. The absence of information and meaningful engagement from the EPA escalated the fear and anxiety in the community,” Glass said.

The West Gate Tunnel was originally estimated to cost $5.5 billion, but the final contract for the toll road was $6.7 billion. The state government in December confirmed it would fork out an extra $2 billion on the project as the price tag appeared set to rise beyond $10 billion.

The government considered pausing the project and finding a new builder after 13 months of gruelling negotiations involving Transurban, builders John Holland and CPB Contractors.

The tunnel linking the West Gate Freeway in Yarraville with CityLink at Docklands was set to open this year but is running years behind schedule due to the soil crisis.

The Age is seeking comment from the EPA.

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