In early September, residents of the Brookland Greens estate, about 50 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, were advised by the Country Fire Authority that methane from the landfill nearby had reached potentially explosive levels and they should get out of there as soon as they could. No emergency housing was offered to them.
The hundreds of families affected have since been urged not to return to their homes for at least a year, while international experts are consulted about plugging the gas leaks. To soften the blow, the state government offered all residents a $8500 relocation grant, on top of an initial $1000 payment.
The process that led to this debacle started in 2000, when the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) was warned by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) that building homes within 500 metres of the Stevenson's Road landfill could create "significant risk". This assessment was supported by the City of Casey.
In that same year, however, the City of Casey moved to change the zoning of the area from farming to residential and entered an agreement with developer Peet and Co. that no building be constructed within a 500-metre buffer zone until the council or the EPA deemed the buffer was no longer required.
In 2003, Peet applied for a permit to build 47 houses on 4.67 hectares of land within 200 metres of the landfill. When the council refused, Peet took its case to VCAT, arguing that the buffer zone should be measured from the active part of the landfill, not the closer inactive part.
Despite the EPA's recommendations, VCAT's two-person panel took the advice of Peet representative Terry Bellair. "Dr Bellair, in response to the EPA's concerns, advised that well-planned and managed landfill sites should not have off-site impacts beyond the required 200-metre buffer", their report said.
In 2004, Peet's plan was approved by VCAT, which referred to Victorian law at the time that allowed for only a 200-metre buffer zone. The law was changed to 500 metres for "relevant landfills" in December that year.
The EPA's argument against the developer was based on concerns that the landfill site was not "well planned and managed". Yet it was the EPA that, in issuing the licence for the site in 1996, did not insist that it be lined with clay or have leachate collection pipes.
The convener of the Western Region Environment Centre, Harry Van Moorst, a long-time campaigner against toxic waste dumps in Victoria, criticises the EPA for approving the landfill in the first place. He told Green Left Weekly that it is not simply a matter of finding all the leaks and putting a plug in them. "The lack of effective side liners and the sandy soil means that if you put a cap over [the landfill], the gas merely travels laterally through the soil, as it has now done", he said.
Van Moorst does not believe that the council's plan to improve the site's gas extraction system now will solve the problem. "While the gas collection pipes help, they will never capture all the gas, and when the water table rises or the cap leaks, many of the pipes get blocked by water and/or clogged by sludge", he said.
Meanwhile, the EPA is blaming VCAT for reducing the buffer zone, the council is blaming the EPA for not demanding a liner, and Peet is blaming the council, saying it lobbied for two years to eliminate seepage risks.
VCAT doesn't seem to be blaming anyone at the moment and probably isn't very worried because, although it defied the EPA, fully aware of the risks to people and environment, it didn't break any laws.
Van Moorst told GLW: "The EPA must take substantial responsibility for this. Although they did the right thing in opposing the buffer reduction at VCAT, despite losing, they subsequently failed in their duty of care. They are the regulating body responsible for ensuring that the landfill operates properly and poses no threat to either environment or humans."
He added: "The government should legislate such buffers with a minimum that VCAT can't challenge and they continually fail to do this, presumably to satisfy developers."
The affected residents don't know who to blame, but they do know they now have a mortgage on a house that they can't live in and that has dropped in value by around 60% in some cases. Next to this, and the fact that most of them will have to rent another house to live in for an extended period, the government grant is totally inadequate.
Meanwhile, Peet & Co. recorded a net profit last year of $47.9 million.