“The EPA advised the builder to excavate any waste from the proposed building envelope and to backfill with soil,” the confidential document says.
Both the toxic waste beneath St Albans and Albion and the knowledge of its existence have been buried and unearthed many times since seven huge garbage dumps were closed in the mid-1970s. At each step, the EPA and the council have known much more than they have told the public.
Extraordinary information provided to Brimbank City Council in confidence late last year shows it was an EPA executive who authorised 9 million gallons per year (about 34 million litres) of “intractable liquid waste” being poured into the old bluestone quarries. And it was the council – then the City of Sunshine – which encouraged a local developer to turn the northern part of this dump site into a housing estate. Why? because it wanted the revenue from rates.
Lost maps and ‘common knowledge’
Twelve months after the Wongs found rubbish, the City of Sunshine agreed to buy their land back from them. Today there is no house on it at all: 63 Denton Street was bulldozed and a public thoroughfare created between the street and the park.
It was one of many times waste was discovered in Denton Avenue and Toora Court. Between 1977 and 1992, it was “common knowledge of the municipal building surveyor, builders and the likely residents,” according to the confidential council report. In fact, the building surveyor developed a habit of recommending owners only build near the street, and that they lay a “floating slab” and add vapour mitigation barriers.
Some homeowners were told of the issue by the surveyor, and, in the early days, an outline of the seven huge burial pits appeared on the old planning scheme. But the rest of the community remained in ignorance.
In 1999, changes were made to planning schemes around Melbourne. When the council, by now called Brimbank City Council, produced its new-format scheme, even the sketchy outlines of the rubbish pits had disappeared. Since then, people buying houses have been none the wiser.
Eventually even the council itself forgot about what was underneath this huge parcel of land between Albion and St Albans. In 2002, the council sold two hectares of its own industrial land for $575,000 – a valuation based on its assumption that there was no buried pollution. Eight years later, it was forced to buy the land back when its assumption was found to be wrong.
That debacle prompted Brimbank to commission a report in 2010 about what exactly lay beneath. That report found a “high” risk to local residents and visitors. It was handed to the EPA in 2013.
Then, for seven long years, silence. The council and the EPA started quietly monitoring gas emissions in the area, but until last week, residents say nobody bothered to tell them what was going on.
‘An acceptable outcome’
The EPA has been part of this story from the start.
In the 1960s, the City of Sunshine started filling seven basalt holes up to 21 metres deep with municipal waste. What had been bluestone quarries became the Sunshine Landfills, and not only household waste, but radioactive materials, solvents, paints, oil, acids, poisons, manure and other industrial waste were dumped.
Dangerous liquid waste that is now required to be treated and disposed of properly was, in 1969, simply poured into the ground.
When Victoria’s landmark Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1970, the council was required to reapply for permission to dump. The Commission for Public Health approved the dump but it prohibited the dumping of liquid waste. The council appealed to the brand new Environment Protection Authority. The EPA overturned the commission’s decision and “allowed 9 million gallons per annum” – about 34 million litres per year – of liquid intractable waste to be poured into the pits”, a report to council confirms.
Crucial to this decision was the EPA’s then chief land waste management officer, Dr Frank Meldrum. Meldrum approved the 9 million gallons and then gave expert evidence through a series of appeals in the following years to back his own decision.
If the liquid waste was mixed with domestic garbage, Meldrum insisted, it would achieve “an acceptable outcome,” as the liquid was “remaining in suspension within the waste body”.
Plenty of experts thought otherwise. In further appeals and reports through the early 1970s, they found the poisons were leaching into the groundwater and heading for Port Phillip Bay, and that Victoria’s basalt was unsuitable for storing dangerous chemical waste.
With the EPA opposing every step, appeal courts first reduced the amount of liquid that could be dumped to 5 million gallons per year (19 million litres) and then, in 1976, the equivalent of VCAT overturned the EPA’s decision entirely. From March 1977, liquid waste was finally banned.
‘Try your luck’ with houses
Even as some of the pits were still operating as a dump, an enterprising western suburban developer, L.G and F.H Nickson was planning a new future for the site. The company teamed up with the quarry owner, Albion Reid (now Boral), to apply to subdivide it and develop the northern part for housing. The so-called “Nickson Estate” would have 688 brand new residential lots on land they no doubt bought for a song.
The City of Sunshine was enthusiastic, according to a confidential council report.
“City of Sunshine encouraged LG. & F.H. Nickson to ‘try his luck’ with the residential subdivision, noting the concern that failure to facilitate the subdivision would result in loss of rates revenue.”
Nicksons’ application was approved within months. And even after waste from Pit 4 of the dump was found directly underneath the lots that are now known as 115 to 123B Denton Avenue, residential building proceeded. The council made a half-hearted proposal to swap the dirty land for clean land, but nothing came of it.
“An exchange of land appears to be the best way of solving the problem,” one report to council reveals. But, even so, “no amendment was made, failing to resolve the encroachment [of contamination].”
Advice sent to Brimbank council last year said these facts meant the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, Albion Reid, the developer Nickson and the City of Sunshine, were all potentially negligent at law. The council could be held responsible as “the polluter,” and the state government “and/or the EPA as the entity that permitted the pollution”. The statute of limitations meant that only those who suffered damage in the past six years, however, could actually sue.
Manisha Blencowe, practice group leader with law firm Slater and Gordon, said residents and business owners could qualify for compensation if it could be proven the council’s negligence had caused property values drop or affected people’s quality of life.
“What happens next – in terms of potential compensation or property acquisitions – will depend in part on the approach the council takes,” Blencowe said. “There can be a risk of buck-passing in this case, but we hope council will respond sensibly.”
EPA vs Council
The 2013 council report, sent to the EPA, should have been the wake-up call these organisations needed. It identified a “high” health risk for residents due to “uncertainties in the extent of soil gas”. While the actual risk to individuals was considered “acceptable”, it should not have inspired complacency.
But instead of publicly revealing the results, the EPA started a program of monitoring gas emissions – a fact relied on heavily by its western region manager Stephen Lansdell when answering questions prompted by a report in The Age on Friday. Residents say they were aware of the testing, but not why it was being undertaken.
Now, a rash of applications for medium and high density development on polluted ground has threatened to unearth what so many have buried for so long. The council sought legal advice last year and a rash of new expert reports. The council’s director of city development, Kelvin Walsh, acknowledged on ABC Radio that the council’s disclosure of the dangers to residents had been “not ideal”, but said the latest reports had showed gas exposures “have changed in our December 2019 update to low risk”.
One of the reports was the confidential advice which was scathing of the EPA and earlier councils. It says the EPA’s deep involvement in the toxic waste history of the site “may have contributed to the response … to date” under which the EPA “has not sought to intervene in any effective way”.
Fifty years after the seven rubbish tips opened, and seven years after the Brimbank City Council was warned in no uncertain terms of the danger to residents, council officers last week started knocking on people’s doors and providing (sometimes confusing) information packs to residents.
It is proposing an “Environmental Audit Overlay” on the planning scheme to inform new house buyers exactly what they are getting into.
Finally, someone is starting to come clean about the dirty truth over the back fence.
Michael Bachelard is The Age’s investigations editor. He has worked in Canberra, Melbourne and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. He has written two books and won multiple awards for journalism, including the Gold Walkley in 2017.
Chris Vedelago is an investigations reporter for The Age with a special interest in crime and justice.