A $180 million rail yard being built in Melbourne’s west to make way for the West Gate Tunnel could now become a dumping ground for the road’s toxic soil, just as it was set to open.
The site in Wyndham Vale, in the seat of Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas, is just 70 metres from houses and abuts the sites of planned housing developments and four schools.
Mr Pallas, the member for Werribee who signed off on the Transurban toll road, faces a bruising fight with his constituents, who have vowed to go to war over the proposal.
They say the Werribee area continually bears the brunt of the government’s unpopular decisions because it is a safe Labor seat.
Three years ago a major local revolt forced Labor to stop plans to build a youth detention facility in Werribee.
The Andrews government is urgently trying to find a place to dump the $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel’s soil laced with potential carcinogens PFAS and asbestos, amid a dramatic impasse with Transurban and the road’s builders over how to manage the waste.
Builders John Holland and CPB Contractors are threatening to leave the project due to the deadlock, with tunnelling estimated to be about a year behind schedule.
Government officials met with Wyndham Council staff on Tuesday morning and revealed a proposal to use the 82-hectare government-owned site to temporarily dump some of the project’s PFAS soil.
A government spokeswoman said the rail yard was being considered as a “back-up” temporary site in case something went wrong with the key landfill that would take most of the project’s soil.
The rail yard would be used to “hold the soil from tunnelling for a short period of time in extenuating circumstances where the main site can’t be accessed,” she said.
The Age understands the Wyndham Vale site may also be used to hide stockpiles of toxic soil sitting at the project’s inner-city construction sites, to avoid an ongoing public relations headache.
But a government spokeswoman denied this, saying: “There are strict safety measures to manage the soil that is currently stored on site, and there is no plan to move that soil to the Wyndham Vale site.”
Taxpayers are paying $180 million to build the Wyndham Vale rail yard to replace the Footscray train stabling site being removed to extend Wurundjeri Way, as part the West Gate Tunnel works.
The rail yard set to open in coming months would free up storage capacity and house additional country trains in the future. It was celebrated by Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan and Mr Pallas in 2018 as a significant investment in regional rail.
It is not clear if the soil dumping plan would hold up operations at the new stabling facility. There is a large chunk of available land surrounding the site where the soil could be stored.
James Hohepa-Smith, who lives five minutes walk from the rail yard, said he was alarmed at the news, which he said was reminiscent of Labor’s 2017 plan to turn a government-owned site in Werribee South into a high security youth justice centre — a move successfully opposed by thousands of local residents.
“We are up in arms,” Mr Hohepa-Smith said. “Why should we be used as a dumping ground for the government’s mistakes?”
“It’s all, ‘let’s chuck it there to get rid of the problem’, but you’re just moving it to another location,” he said.
Wyndham mayor Josh Gilligan said he was furious about the proposal and seeking urgent information about it due to serious health concerns.
“This site is close to the Werribee River, future schools and residential communities and any suggestion that it could be used for this purpose is outrageous,” he said.
“At this stage the information we have is very limited but we are appalled that our city is being considered as a dumping ground.”
Community organiser Lisa Heinrichs said those in the west had had enough of the government riding roughshod over the safe Labor seat.
“I’m sick of the fact that state Labor government thinks they can just dump on us all the time. We are one of the largest growth corridors in Australia and the revenue they collect from here is huge.”
A government spokeswoman said Transurban and its builder were still working on finding a “long-term solution to manage the rock and soil from tunnelling”.
“No decision has been made,” she said.
The Wyndham Vale site is among a series of government-owned sites being eyed off to dump the West Gate Tunnel soil, with another site on Whitehall Street in Footscray understood to have been considered.
These options enable the government to override the local council, but the dumping site would still need to be rezoned and receive the Environment Protection Authority’s approval.
Questions sent to Mr Pallas were answered by a government spokeswoman.