Ex-EPA CEO says Vic Ombud’s ‘lightning rod’ issues make communication difficult

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has come under fire from the Victorian Ombudsman for its lack of community consultation over the disposal of contaminated spoil from the West Gate tunnel project in Melbourne.

The ombud was evaluating how the EPA handled the disposal of contaminated spoil and found that although the EPA had fulfilled its scientific and legal obligations, it had failed to address community concerns.

The EPA was given responsibility for waste management. The tunneling soil for the project was likely to be contaminated with PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), as the substances had been detected in groundwater after the start of the project. Due to issues with tunnels and private residences, it was not possible to test the soil to find the precise levels of PFAS.

Senior EPA officials have denied any government interference. However, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass noted in her foreword that the costs of the project were skyrocketing, so there was “little doubt” that the EPA would have come under pressure.

Local residents were concerned about the management of contaminated spoil in their areas, particularly about getting sick from the waste.

“We moved to Sunbury to give our children clean and safe open spaces to grow up in…I refuse to have my family be guinea pigs until we see what the long-term effects of these chemicals are,” says Sunbury . the group said.

Glass acknowledged that the EPA made the right decisions based on science, requiring landfill operators to treat the spoil as if it were 10 times more toxic than it likely would be. The EPA has also updated its website with factually correct information.

However, Glass expressed disappointment at the lack of communication with the affected community, with the EPA telling the mediator that it would be a “waste of time” and that discussions “could not be fruitful due to the level of anger from the community”.

A former EPA chief executive, quoted by the ombud, called it a “lightning rod problem”, which makes it difficult to communicate facts in an emotionally charged environment.

“It may have achieved the bare minimum required by the legislation,” Glass wrote, “but it has led to a yawning chasm between the EPA’s approach and the community’s expectations of how its regulator environment should behave.

“The result has been a lack of faith in the EPA as an independent authority and a perception that it puts political and business interests ahead of its duties as an environmental health regulator.”

The ombud noted that the EPA said it lacked the resources to deal with public perception, and also noted that it had spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on legal advice.

Glass had reported similar sentiments about the importance of public service transparency, as reported in Mandarin.

“Very often when you find out about these so-called ‘questionable decisions’, we find that there was a very good reason for [sic] why an official followed a particular course of action, but did not explain it, communicate it, or could have documented it better,” Glass said at the time.

In response to report published by the Ombud regarding the situation, the EPA welcomed the report and accepted the four recommendations made.


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