Toxic contaminants latest chapter in West Gate Tunnel saga

A West Gate Tunnel construction site in Yarraville, in Melbourne’s West. Photo: Mischa Frank

The development consortium responsible for building Melbourne’s West Gate Tunnel has taken inadequate measures to protect workers and the public from toxic contaminants, including asbestos and perfluoralkyl substances (PFAs), according to the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU).

Construction of the West Gate Tunnel project is being overseen by a joint venture involving John Holland and CPB Contractors.

The union recently launched a website detailing allegations of repeated poor management of hazardous waste, including inadequate provision of and dissuasion of workers from using appropriate protective equipment.

Alarmingly, the union revealed that asbestos-contaminated soil was left along a major road.

The union also denounced that soil excavated from Coode Island as part of the tunnel’s construction has put workers, community and the environment at risk of exposure to PFAs. It claims that piles of PFA-contaminated soil were left uncontained on the side of Footscray Road for weeks. 

The union said workers were being denied protective “white suits” when handling the soil.

PFAs were historically used as an ingredient in fire extinguishing foam, including to control the chemically-fuelled 1991 Coode Island fire.

In more recent years, PFAs have been discontinued from use by fire authorities and there is evidence linking PFA exposure to detrimental outcomes for human health and the environment.

While awaiting conclusive research, the Environmental Protection Authority is currently investigating industrial sites where PFAs have been used to manage fires.

John Holland and CPB have had a poor history of compliance with health and safety practices throughout their management of the West Gate Tunnel project.

For several months between September and February, workers were exposed to lead paint contained in imported steel they were welding.

Work on the tunnel was eventually placed on hold when state transport minister Jacinta Allan intervened, however, not before several workers were required to undergo testing for exposure to dangerously high levels of lead.

In June last year, a worker tragically died after languishing in hospital from a head trauma incurred while working on the tunnel.

Given Victorian taxpayer dollars are partly funding the West Gate Tunnel, the community has every right to demand that these matters be investigated closely and that, if found to be true, the companies be prosecuted and penalised.

[The CFMMEU is requesting community members contact Premier Daniel Andrews at Daniel.Andrews@parliament.vic.gov.au and John Holland CEO Joe Barr at joe.barr@jhg.com.au. For more information visit toxic-tunnel.com.]

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