Victoria’s infrastructure spree is of a scale and cost never before seen in this state. While Premier Daniel Andrews is unlikely to be around long enough to cut the ribbon on all the projects, they furnish his government with its raison d’etre, illustrated most successfully in its thumping victory at the last state election. So when one of its biggest and most complex projects goes awry, it’s worth taking a closer look. What doing so reveals is not exactly reassuring.
The $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel has come to a grinding halt after the state government, Transurban and the project’s builders failed to come to an agreement on who should pay the extra costs of dealing with large amounts of contaminated soil. The builders, John Holland and CPB Contractors, threatened on Wednesday to pull out of the project altogether after having warned the government six months ago that they would jump ship if the issue was not resolved. While the wrangling goes on, the tunnel-boring machines sit idle and 140 construction workers have already been sacked.
The scale of the problem is best illustrated by the more than 1.5 million cubic metres of rock and soil, enough to fill the MCG to the top of the stands, that will be dug out to build nearly seven kilometres of tunnels. The contaminate of most concern is PFAS – a group of more than 4000 chemicals used for resisting heat, stains, grease and water. The chemicals, which are now being phased out, were once used extensively in firefighting foams and led to the shutting down of the CFA training college in Fiskville. Exposure to PFAS is being linked to higher risks of cancer and liver damage.
Transurban is pointing the finger for the cost blowout at the Environment Protection Authority’s new regulations on PFAS, introduced last October. These tightened the rules around how contaminated soil must be stored, treated and eventually dumped. Unsurprisingly, the EPA is playing tit-for-tat, denying its rule changes should make any difference to the costs.