The city’s largest tip – Cleanaway in Ravenhall – is considering expanding its 300-hectare site by another 50 hectares to take the project’s soil, possibly by buying more quarry land from neighbouring Boral.
Typically, this would probably be subject to a works approval and require a licence. The process can take several years because it involves a statutory requirement for public consultation and independent expert submissions and open hearings, and it means decisions are subject to appeal at VCAT.
This is what occurred in 2017, when Cleanaway expanded its site by 96 hectares, following 13 months of community engagement, public hearings and an independent planning panel.
But that process has been dropped in the case of the West Gate Tunnel owing to new regulations written after the project’s soil crisis.
“Containment” facilities for the soil will be built adjacent to current landfills and will not technically or legally be considered landfills by the EPA.
Landfill operators estimate it will take six months to prepare their sites for the project soil. Tunnelling can’t start until they are prepared to accept the dirt, which could be as late as March or April next year.
Third-party comment is being shut out of the process under the new EPA rules, meaning residents are not allowed to take the matter to VCAT.
Planning Minister Richard Wynne is expected to use extraordinary powers that will remove councils from the planning and approvals process in order to approve the landfill plans quickly.
Moorabool Council is likely to challenge this decision in the Supreme Court, a senior council source said, following the lead of councils in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs that took the Andrews government to court over the North East Link.
Hume Council has engaged Maddocks lawyers, arguing the Hi-Quality landfill in Bulla is permitted to undertake dumping activity “that is currently prohibited by the permit and licence”.
The usual “rigorous process” of public submissions, hearings and an independent panel had been bypassed, the lawyers said, despite the landfill’s 25-hectare expansion being “significant … with long-term and far-reaching potential consequences for the community”.
Contractual or political consequences of delays were not adequate justifications for shutting the council out of the process, the lawyers said. West Gate Tunnel project officials had been aware since 2018 that chemicals known as PFAS were in the soil and it was not clear why plans for landfill expansions started only in mid-2020, they said.
Melton and Brimbank councils – which in 2017 lost an appeal against Cleanaway’s expansion at VCAT – are waging another campaign against the landfill’s current plans to accept PFAS soil.
They have encouraged people to contact their local MPs and created a petition signed by 2000 people.
“We have concerns around the nature of the soil and its potential to impact the community,” Melton City
Council chief executive Kelvin Tori said.
Heather Dodd, who owns a farm opposite Hi-Quality and has painted her farm machinery in protest against the plans, said residents were concerned about increased traffic from trucks – an estimated 15 trips an hour, 24/7, for up to two years.
“Sunbury Road and the Bulla Bridge are not designed for that amount of traffic at all,” she said.
Ms Dodd said she was worried about PFAS leaking into a natural water course that flows from the landfill into her farm, which sells crops and cattle.
Multiple industry sources estimate the cost of building a containment system able to accept 3 million tonnes of wet PFAS soil will be at least $100 million, but could be as high $250 million.
A government spokeswoman said the new regulations mirrored tools built into next year’s update to the EPA’s legislation and would enable a fit-for-purpose approach to soil management.
“These regulations mean we can get on with vital tunnelling projects that will slash travel times and create tens of thousands of jobs for Victorians,” she said.
An EPA spokesman said a “comprehensive assessment of potential environmental impacts” had been conducted on each of the landfills, and all information was available online.
“We are confident the strategies proposed will keep the community and environment safe and protected,” he said.
The government has removed signs along the West Gate Freeway promoting the 2022 completion date.
Timna Jacks is Transport Reporter at The Age