FOI documents reveal North East Link project breaches

China. Photo: Say NO to North East Link Option A/Facebook

Barry Watson, a resident of Doncaster in Melbourne used freedom-of-information (FOI) laws to obtain an audit about canopy tree loss caused by the early works for the North East Link tollway project (NELP), estimated to cost at least $16 billion.

Watson, who lives near a section of Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway that will be widened for the proposed tollway, is involved in the Stop North East Link Alliance campaign. He spoke with Mary Merkenich.

You discovered that the construction of the North East Link project may have underestimated the scale of tree loss by as much as 80%. How did you get hold of this information?

It is not easy to find out about non-compliances unless we submit FOI requests for documents or read summarised reports on the NELP website. The 80% extra tree canopy loss relates to Borlase Reserve only. This was revealed in the Independent Environmental Auditor’s (IEA) report obtained under FOI.

Are the community and the four councils being fully informed about the tollway’s progress?

I would say only Banyule Council is updated on the Borlase works because Borlase Reserve is in Banyule. Maybe Manningham council are informed about Trinity College works. All four councils will get some sort of report on the progress of works and a summary of IEA non-compliances. I don’t believe the councils receive the IEA reports.

This is only the start of the construction. Why do you think this information is important?

This is the thin edge of the wedge. If NELP can cheat Environmental Performance Requirements (EPRs) in the early works, then they will surely continue on the big stage.

Have there been other breaches of the environment performance requirements?

The IEA reports highlight a number of other non-compliances (noise, dust and contaminated soil) with EPR’s at Borlase Reserve.    

How many trees will be cut down for the NELP and what is your assessment of the tree canopy loss?

The Environment Effects Statement (EES) mentions about 26,000 trees will be cut down. NELP tell us 30,000 trees will be planted. The trees that will be lost are mature. I doubt if the replacement trees will be mature trees. Dr Greg Moore (from Ecosystems and Forest Science at Melbourne University) said the replacement of a mature tree requires between 8 and 20 small trees to achieve the same air filtering.

Resident groups in Bacchus Marsh, Sunbury/Bulla and Ravenshall are campaigning against the dumping of toxic soil in their communities. Will this be an issue resulting from the NELP?

The EES tells us there are 4.2 million cubic metres of waste soil. Of this, 3.8 million cubic metres are contaminated and described as Prescribed Industrial Waste (PIW). NELP is refusing to say how much per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS and GenX) will be found within the PIW volume. The EES also says PFAS contaminated groundwater (unquantified) will be encountered.

In the light of these breaches, would you trust these companies to find safe sites to dispose of toxic soil?

PFAS soil and groundwater is the big issue. I don’t know what they will do with it. I think all other waste soils can be disposed in accordance with Environment Protection Authority requirements.

What happens next?

We must highlight the problem wherever we can. The big problem is that the EPRs are useless. The contractor can breach without penalty. It is only when the media get hold of the story that it’s a problem for them.