How toxic soil can poison a town

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By Bayley Cocking

When you enter Bacchus Marsh, you are welcomed by towering Canadian elm trees, making up the town’s award-winning Avenue of Honour. They stretch ever upwards, providing a dense canopy over the winding main road, with kaleidoscopic light breaking through the leaves.

Nestled below these woodland monuments lie countless orchards and groves, which are dotted throughout the countryside. They grow and sell delicious local produce, from apples to zucchini – an edible alphabet.

Kat Barlow worries that it all could be lost if her town is approved as a PFAS dumping spot. Barlow is a spokesperson for the Bacchus Marsh Community Coalition, a group dedicated to ensuring toxic runoff from the West Gate Tunnel Project does not enter their town.

“Our battle is to keep it in the media, keep the whole of Australia interested and make sure that everyone knows what could be dumped in our town,” Barlow says.

“We’re not going down without a fight.”

Maddingley Brown Coal (MBC), a mine located in Bacchus Marsh, is one of three proposed storage sites currently pending approval from the state government. If MBC’s application is accepted, more than three million tonnes of contaminated soil be dumped at the Bacchus Marsh site.

Earlier in the year, close to 1500 community members rallied together in Bacchus Marsh’s main streets to protest MBC’s proposal. Residents of all ages vented their frustration through chants, picket signs, and posters. And yet their town is still in the running for the polluted soil.

The soil and rock, known as spoil, is being unearthed for the $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel Project, which is being developed by road operator company, Transurban. The project’s website claims that, upon extensive preliminary testing, low levels of the chemical family PFAS were found within some excavated soil. However, test results from consultancy firm Agon Environmental, which were leaked to The Age in March, indicate contamination levels ranging from 112 to 2000 times the acceptable amount found in drinking water.

Barlow says locals need “more information” from the project’s developers.

“The community has been kept in the dark through this entire process,” she says.

“Almost every document that has been released to the public has been redacted. They’ve had risk assessments done, but they’ve always been redacted, we’ve never been given all the information. We’ve never been given the human health or ecological risk assessments.”

Barlow fears her town could suffer the same fate as the Country Fire Authority’s Fiskville training site. In 2015, the facility was closed indefinitely, after a PFOS contaminant was found in the site’s water supply. Despite assurances that only “low levels” were identified, studies have found more than a dozen individuals related to the site have died of cancer.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are a family of manmade chemicals. They are typically found in household products, food, water, and living organisms. The USEPA claims that PFAS exposure can cause “adverse health outcomes in humans”, including increased cholesterol, reduced infant birth weights, and thyroid hormone disruption. Other organisations and government bodies, such as Toxic-Free Future and the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention claim that there are links between PFAS exposure and kidney and testicular cancer. However, the Australian Department of Defence states that there is “limited to no evidence of human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure”.

The Department of Defence, however, does not instill much confidence in the Bacchus Marsh Community Coalition. For almost nine months, the group has been researching the chemical, and they are finding a lot more bad news than good, says Barlow.

“It’s seeing what it has done to other communities, it’s seeing the pain that it has caused other communities,” she says.

“It’s seeing that, as far as we can ascertain, it’s never been properly contained anywhere. So why are we the experiment?”

Spoil from the West Gate Tunnel Project will come out of the ground in a mud-like state. Maddingley Brown Coal plans to temporarily store the spoil in uncovered holding bays for close to three weeks. Spoil samples will be taken on-site to determine whether the spoil is contaminated and needs to be taken to a separate facility for further testing.

This concerns Nicola Lane greatly. As a member of the Bacchus Marsh Community Coalition, Lane is all too familiar with MBC’s proposal. She hopes to take her community passion to the Moorabool Shire Council, for which she is running as an independent candidate.

“I’ve been very outspoken against Bacchus Marsh becoming a dumping site,” she says. “It’s absurd that the spoil could sit there for 21 days uncovered.”

“Maddingley is elevated, it gets windy up there. If the top layer of the sludge dries and the wind picks it up, it could be carried anywhere.”

Looking up towards MBC, the site is seemingly lost in a perpetual shroud of dust. Every day, countless trucks head up Tilley’s Road to the mine, dragging clouds of dirt behind them. Locals worry that PFAS contaminants could easily be caught in one of those clouds and accidentally dispersed over their town.

The bioaccumulation of PFAS has attracted international concern. Bioaccumulation is the process by which a contaminant, like PFAS, can gradually amass in living organisms and move up the food chain. MBC is adjacent to the Parwan Creek, which flows into the Werribee River. If even the smallest amount of contaminated spoil was to spill into the waterways, Lane says the results could be catastrophic.

“If there is a leak of that contaminant, it could kill the town,” she says. “The effect would be disastrous.”

“Animals could be wiped out, people could get sick, farms will have to close, jobs will be lost. It would kill everything.”

Bacchus Marsh exports fruits and vegetables across the country. Broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce leaves are sent to Coles supermarkets as far as Perth. That means that contaminants from the regional Victorian town could bioaccumulate in Western Australia. In 2019, Environment Protection Authorities across Australia approved the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan 2.0. The plan outlines a range of human and ecological health receptors that could be sensitive to PFAS contaminants. The plan is being implemented in every state and territory, except Victoria.

Documents released by the Moorabool Environmental Group claim that the MBC site has all sensitive receptors nearby.

“Bacchus Marsh Grammar, a school of 2000 children, is only 400 metres from Maddingley,” says Lane. “There are built-up residential areas nearby, parks, aged-care facilities. Everything is nearby.

“The site could affect wildlife in the Parwan Creek and Werribee River as well, like the growling grass frog, which is endangered.”

While the spoil’s toxicity is alarming to the Bacchus Marsh RSL sub-branch, their main concern does not lie with where the runoff will be stored. Instead, they’re more worried about how it will enter their town.

Trucks carrying the spoil will enter Bacchus Marsh from the east, meaning they will have to travel through the town’s Avenue of Honour to reach Maddingley Brown Coal. It is expected that, during peak movements, there will be 360 trucks transporting spoil to MBC per day. This equates to approximately 15 trucks per hour, 24 hours per day.

It is the community’s understanding that the spoil-carrying trucks could be entering their town for up to two years.

“This road is already busy,” says the president of the Bacchus Marsh RSL sub-branch, Cherrison Lawton. “If you add another truck there every six minutes or so, there’s a chance that it could do a fair bit of damage to the road and trees.

“We’re worried about the toxic fumes from vehicles and the vibration. Trucks are different to what they were 50 years ago, they’re just so big and so heavy.

“And if they’re going to be coming every day for the next two years, there will be some damage to the trees. It’s inevitable.”

The Bacchus Marsh community is incredibly protective of the historical Avenue. Lawton is used to fielding many calls from concerned locals whenever there’s maintenance scheduled for the trees. She jokes that the Moorabool Shire Council should get into the habit of calling the RSL before any service to the forest array is undertaken.

According to the Avenue’s website, 463 trees make up the display, which are protected under the Heritage Act 2017. Of the 463, 281 of the trees are dedicated to individuals who served during World War One. The National Trust has called for the state government to halt MBC’s application to store the spoil, due to the potential damage that could be done to the trees during transport.

Lawton considers the Avenue to hold “international significance”, as Dutch elm disease has decimated similar Avenues across the globe.

“The Avenue of Honour in Bacchus Marsh is one of the last spans of Canadian Elm trees in the world. (Dutch elm disease) has destroyed similar avenues in Europe,” says Lawton.

“This 100 year old Avenue holds cultural significance for Victoria, Australia, and the world. It should be protected.”

On a wintry morning in August of 2018, the Bacchus Marsh community celebrated the Avenue’s centenary. Drums echoed up and down the main street, accompanying the hundreds parading through the Avenue. At each tree commemorating a soldier, a hand-knitted wreathe was delicately hung. In total, 3000 woollen poppies were sewed together by RSL members, before they were made into 391 wreathes. 

Recently, the sub-branch has been raising money with the hope of developing a monument alongside the Avenue of Honour. The planned ‘Resting Poppy’ is a sculpture designed by artist Dean Bowen, symbolising peace, family, and unity. Five individual bronze poppy pieces will be arranged in an illusory manner, nestled between snaking plaques, commemorating other soldiers who are not represented by a tree.

The RSL only worries that, in two years, there won’t be an Avenue to commemorate.

“We’re hoping for a future for the Bacchus Marsh Avenue of Honour,” Lawton says. “We’re currently in the process of developing a memorial sculpture to honour the people who aren’t named along the Avenue. We’re planning a future for it, so we really hope there is one.”

Until the state government decides on a storage site for the spoil, the town of Bacchus Marsh will be on the front foot. If Maddingley Brown Coal is approved, the Community Coalition will have no choice but to take legal action, says a determined Kat Barlow.

“I can’t tell you what those plans are, but this fight isn’t over until we know for sure that the soil isn’t coming to town.”

This story was produced for a second-year Feature Writing unit.

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