The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has been criticised by the Victorian ombud for its lack of community consultation over the disposal of contaminated spoil from the West Gate Tunnel Project in Melbourne.
The ombud was assessing how the EPA managed the disposal of contaminated spoil, and found that although the EPA fulfilled its scientific and legal obligations, it was not successful in addressing community concerns.
The EPA was tasked with waste management. Soil from tunnelling for the project was likely to be contaminated with PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), as the substances had been detected in groundwater after the project had begun. Due to issues involving tunnelling and private residences, testing of the soil to find the precise levels of PFAS could not occur.
Senior officials from EPA denied any government interference. However, Victorian ombud Deborah Glass noted in her foreword the costs for the project were blowing-out, so there was ‘little doubt’ the EPA would have faced pressure.
Local residents were concerned about the management of the contaminated spoil in their areas, particularly about becoming sick from the waste.
“We moved to Sunbury to give our children clean, safe open spaces to grow up in … I refuse to allow my family to be guinea pigs while we wait to see what the long-term effects of these chemicals are,” Sunbury Says No community group said.
Glass acknowledged the EPA had made the correct decisions according to the science, requiring landfill operators to treat the spoil as if it were 10 times more toxic than it was likely to be. The EPA also updated its website with factually correct information.
However, Glass expressed disappointment in the lack of communication with the community concerned, with the EPA telling the ombud it would be a ‘waste of time’ and that discussions ‘could not be fruitful because of the level of anger in the community’.
A former chief executive officer of the EPA, as quoted by the ombud, called it a ‘lightning rod issue’, making it difficult to communicate the facts in an emotionally charged environment.
“This may have achieved the bare minimum required by legislation,” wrote Glass, “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.”
The ombud noted the EPA said it did not have the resources to manage the public’s perception, and also noted it spent ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’ on legal advice.
Glass had flagged similar sentiments on the importance of public service transparency, as reported in The Mandarin.
“Very often, when you make inquiries into these so-called ‘dodgy decisions’, we find there was a perfectly good reason for [sic] why a public servant followed a particular course of action, but they didn’t explain it, didn’t communicate it, or could have better have documented it,” Glass had said at the time.
In response to the report released by the ombud concerning the situation, the EPA welcomed the report and accepted all four recommendations made.