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Developer Time & Place circles Mobil’s $52m West Gate site


A deal will be set at a land rate around $600 per square metre, suggesting a price near $52 million, but neither company would confirm details.

Mobil said it was cleaning up the land under an Environment Protection Authority remediation plan. “As such, we sought expressions of interest from parties who intend to develop this land,” the company said.

“Mobil is currently managing a tender process for the development of our parcel of land.”

Time & Place controls a diverse development portfolio ranging from residential and commercial office projects to retail and industrial subdivisions.

Founded by Tim Price, the platform is no stranger to Melbourne’s western industrial market, where it currently has several developments in progress. Mr Price would not comment on the transaction.

Two months ago, it sealed an acquisition with ASX-listed logistics operator Qube Holdings to take over a large 137,000-square-metre property in Francis Street, Brooklyn, for $65 million.

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Just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the group sold a large office project in East Melbourne on Victoria Parade for $330 million in a fund-through arrangement to Singapore-based ARA Asset Management.

Along with joint venture partner Jeff Xu’s Golden Age Group, it will manage that development through to completion.

Mobil’s bill for remediation of the Spotswood site is likely to run into millions of dollars, chewing up a significant portion of funds the company will net from the transaction.

The fuel refiner began remediation of the site in 2014, razing the above-ground petro-chemical infrastructure and removing piping, storage tanks, warehouses and office buildings.

The visibility of the high-volume storage tanks to many thousands of commuters crossing the 2.5-kilometre West Gate Bridge was a reminder of the inner west’s fast-changing industrial past.

The property is listed on the EPA’s latest polluted sites register, meaning it is subject to a legally enforceable clean-up or pollution abatement notice.

The freshly cleared land in Simcock Avenue, just a few kilometres from the city’s shipping docks, is likely to be carved up into smaller industrial allotments, developed with warehouse offices and sold or leased to multiple users.

Time & Place is completing a 16.7-hectare Williams Point industrial development in Maddox Road in Williamstown North this year and has another 21.5-hectare site at 16 – 36 Dohertys Road, Laverton North, under construction.

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Local News - Victoria

Transurban launches legal action against West Gate Tunnel’s builders


A spokeswoman for the West Gate Tunnel Project, the government agency that’s managing the works, said the state government was told late on Friday afternoon that Transurban was taking action and is not currently involved in the proceedings.

The government expects works to continue while the lawsuit is under way.

“This is a matter between Transurban and their builder and we hope they can come to a speedy resolution,” the spokeswoman said. “We expect construction will continue while the matter is heard.”

The project’s builders CPB Contractors and John Holland have axed about 450 jobs in the lead-up to the legal challenge, with more than 300 still likely to be shed, according to threats made by the builders.

Tunnelling on the toll road was due to start about nine months ago but has not begun due to a dispute between the builders and head project contractor Transurban over how to process and dispose of soil contaminated with the toxic chemical PFAS.

The builders have claimed the soil issue is a force majeure event – an unforeseeable circumstance that makes it impossible to fulfil the terms of a contract.

Transurban has disputed this claim and has reserved its rights to seek damages from the builders over the late delivery of the road.

The project is now set to be finished in 2023 instead of 2022, which will probably mean Transurban loses tolling revenue.

However, the company, which is tipping in $4 billion to build the new tollway linking the West Gate Freeway in Spotswood and CityLink in Docklands, will benefit from a 10-year extension on CityLink tolling, which was enabled after the government amended the concession deed.

Tolls on CityLink will increase by 4.25 per cent every year until 2029, then rise by CPI.

Piles of contaminated soil from the West Gate Tunnel project.

Piles of contaminated soil from the West Gate Tunnel project.Credit:Wayne Taylor

By 2044-45, Transurban stands to make an extra $37 billion in nominal terms ($7.5 billion in present value terms) as a result of the new tolls.

Michael Fraser is a director of Diligence Research, which conducts research into ethical investment and monitors Transurban closely.

He said the company was a “well-resourced ASX-listed company” that should have known the environmental risks involved in building the West Gate Tunnel. The company should have picked up the additional costs of dealing with PFAS, rather than taking its builders to court, he said.

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And he said it was imperative the Victorian government held fast on its promise not to bail out the project. “Victorians have paid enough,” he said.

Mr Fraser said investors and superannuation funds in particular that invested in Transurban “should be asking why Transurban chose not to inform the market of this legal proceeding, and really question if Transurban meets the criteria for [ethical investment]”.

Builders and the West Gate Tunnel Project notified workers of redundancies in a letter sent in May, warning that “operational requirements resulting from the current PFAS situation” would lead to a “major change that is likely to have a significant impact on certain employees across all aspects of our project”.

Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan blasted the project’s builders and Transurban over the job losses, raising the possibility they were playing a tactical game aimed at extorting the Victorian taxpayer.

“This behaviour that we are seeing most recently from these companies and also Transurban is absolutely disgraceful,” Ms Allan said after the cuts.

Earlier this year, Transurban said “evolving” Environment Protection Authority guidelines on how PFAS should be managed had caused delays on the project.

During the project’s environmental effects statement process in 2017, PFAS chemicals were treated as unregulated contaminants and PFAS soil could be reused, a spokesman said.

But a change in policy meant that most, if not all, of the project’s 2.3 million tonnes of waste must now be tested for PFAS and classified by the EPA, he said.

The tender process for landfill operators bidding to accept the soil has been delayed, with environmental and planning approvals still yet to be granted.

The Bacchus Marsh community is opposed to any of the project’s soil being sent to a local landfill, Maddingley Brown Coal, and has threatened to launch legal action to stop this going ahead.

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Local News - Victoria

Secret EPA reports reveal PFAS problem on West Gate Tunnel


It comes as environmental experts warn that dumping PFAS soil in landfill could create a problem for future generations and have called for all PFAS waste — or at least the most contaminated parts — to be treated and removed.

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Secret EPA classifications issued between May and September before tunnelling was to begin last year show sections of the project’s soil have 100 times the levels of PFAS acceptable in drinking water. Only one facility in the state is licensed to dispose of this soil.

Other sections of soil classified by the EPA have low-level contamination or are clean fill. The amounts of soil measured is unclear.

The Andrews government has continually argued that soil excavated during tunnelling has low traces of PFAS.

While the EPA documents appear to refer mainly to soil being dug up before tunnelling starts, they are understood to also include some areas where the tunnel will go.

“Preliminary testing has shown that the soil from tunnelling is expected to have very low levels of PFAS,” a government spokeswoman said.

Transurban is in a bitter dispute with its builders over the soil crisis. The fight is likely to wind up in court.

Ballooning project costs are linked to delays, hefty landfill levies and the need to build massive new waste facilities to store, process and test more than 1.5 million cubic metres of soil in line with beefed up EPA requirements.

The project is also under pressure to consider treatment options for waste with high traces of PFAS, rather than simply dumping it in landfill.

A CSIRO-developed treatment for PFAS called RemBind, which mixes small amounts of powdered minerals into PFAS soil and prevents the chemicals from leaching out, has been pitched to the project for around $100 million, but a decision on whether it would be used appears to have stalled.

Senior lecturer in environmental science at Melbourne University Brad Clarke said it was time to rethink dumping PFAS waste in landfill, as this was “delaying environmental problems for our children to deal with”.

“As far as we know, these compounds don’t break down at all. So at some point, we will have to dig it up and treat it.”

Associate Professor Robert Niven at the University of NSW, who is researching how to treat PFAS in soils, said decontaminating all of the project’s PFAS waste as proven treatment becomes available could add to costs, but bungling the process “will cost more in the long run”.

Bacchus Marsh resident Kat Barlow said residents were concerned about soil coming out of the tunnel and waste with high levels of PFAS being stockpiled on the side of the road that was covered only with a tarpaulin in Melbourne’s inner-west. “This is a concern for the whole of Melbourne,” she said.

“The very next thing that is going to happen is a class action from residents who find out they’ve been sitting on ‘Category A’ PFAS soil leaching out into parks and gardens where we take our children.”

The EPA requires waste that is Category A — the highest level of contamination — to be decontaminated and a spokeswoman said this was being done for small amounts of soil.

A West Gate Tunnel Project spokeswoman said the EPA “confirmed the levels of PFAS in the spoil from the tunnel boring are expected to be low and at safe levels for the community and the environment with appropriate controls”.

A Transurban spokeswoman said the project’s low levels of PFAS were not harmful to the public during soil removal, relocation or disposal. “The builder, CPB John Holland, continues to work towards a tailored solution for tunnelling that meets all relevant EPA requirements.”

Planning Minister Richard Wynne is examining an application to send the project’s soil to Maddingley Brown Coal landfill. He has triggered a clause in the Planning and Environment Act that gives Moorabool Council a say in the decision, after complaints the shire was shut out of the planning process.

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Scores more jobs axed on West Gate Tunnel project amid soil crisis


It comes a week after 230 jobs on the project were axed, with the toll road’s builders warning 400 workers were at risk of losing their jobs in the coming weeks if a solution to the soil crisis was not found.

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In January, 140 tunnelling workers were sacked after soil across the project’s multiple construction sites was found to be contaminated with potentially carcinogenic PFAS chemicals but there was nowhere to store, treat and dump it safely.

The builders are in a dispute with toll road giant and head project contractor Transurban, claiming the soil issue amounts to a force majeure event, which refers to an unforeseeable circumstance that makes it impossible to fulfil the terms of a contract.

Transurban is disputing this claim and is reserving its rights to seek damages from the builders over the late delivery of the road.

Australian Workers Union secretary Ben Davis said the job cuts were disastrous for workers and showed the project was in serious turmoil.

“The West Gate Tunnel project is dying a death of a thousand cuts – we’re seeing yet another round of job losses.

“That’s a terrible day for people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own and this project is grinding to a halt because there is no long-term solution for the treatment and disposal of contaminated soil.

“This is the worst possible time to be suddenly, unexpectedly unemployed courtesy of COVID-19. Our hearts go out to those who lost their jobs today and their families.”

One worker who did not want to be named said he was devastated to lose his job and his future is now uncertain.

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“I feel shithouse, to be honest. I don’t know what to do.”

A government spokeswoman said there was “no reason whatsoever for Transurban’s builders CPB and John Holland to sack these workers”.

“While businesses across Australia are going to extraordinary lengths to keep staff on, Transurban’s builders sacking more people because they can’t resolve a petty dispute is disgraceful.”

The first of two 450-tonne tunnel boring machines was lowered into a launch site at Yarraville last August, but neither machine has moved a centimetre due to the discovery of the PFAS contaminants. Other work has continued on the project, such as off-ramp construction.

The government expects the West Gate Tunnel to open on time in 2022 to link the West Gate Freeway in Spotswood and CityLink in Docklands. It is designed primarily to relieve pressure on the West Gate Bridge, which carries up to 220,000 vehicles a day.

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No PFAS screening listed in Transurban tests on West Gate Tunnel soil


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The report by consultancy firm Golder Associates, presented to the project’s Environmental Effects Statement on behalf of Transurban, did however warn that PFAS contamination was high-risk at specific hot spots.

Associate Professor Robert Niven, an environmental engineer from the University of NSW who has spent more than 30 years studying contamination, said the exclusion of PFAS soil samples was an “important omission”.

“They’ve tested for a large suite of different classes of chemicals, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have included PFAS in that list,” he said.

Professor Niven, whose expert advice helped guide a federal inquiry into PFAS contamination, said when the Golder report was created in early 2017, “there was a little bit more awareness about PFAS, but perhaps not enough”.

The Victorian Environment Protection Authority had no hard rules on PFAS management before 2018, despite NSW having waste classifications in place.

The Andrews government closed the former Fiskville CFA academy in 2015 after a number of CFA staff and volunteers contracted cancer, and held a parliamentary inquiry in 2016 into the contamination of the site with chemicals including PFAS.

The EPA had planned to give more clarity on PFAS classifications in an update of its industrial waste guidelines, but this has been delayed a year due to COVID-19 along with changes to the EPA Act.

Australian Workers Union secretary Ben Davis said if PFAS testing was undertaken, “then of course it should have been in the publicly-available EES [Environmental Effects Statement] documents. The people who work on the project have a right to know.”

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Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan slammed Transurban and the project’s builders on Tuesday over the axing of 230 white-collar workers and a threat to stand down 400 more in coming weeks. It comes just four months after 140 tunnelers were laid off.

“This behaviour that we’re seeing most recently from these companies and also Transurban is absolutely disgraceful,” Ms Allan said. “You do have to question is this a tactical move by Transurban and its builders in an attempt to in some way extort the Victorian government, and by extension the Victorian community, to help them sort out this issue.”

Ms Allan said the Victorian government would not consider any requests for extra funding to help resolve the crisis.

Thousands of tonnes of soil have been dug up along the project and are being stockpiled along the West Gate Freeway before tunnelling begins.

But Professor Niven warned that simply using a tarpaulin to cover stockpiles of PFAS soil would not prevent it from leaching out into the water system.

“In my experience of contaminated soil, this is a really bad way to store contaminated soil, since it does not adequately prevent the entry of rainfall to the soil, nor the leaching of contaminants from the stockpile into underlying soils,” he said.

Sources close to the project say “weak guidance” from the Victorian EPA meant the road’s consultants were “unprepared” for a tougher regulatory regime on PFAS.

In February, Transurban chief executive Scott Charlton blamed “evolving” EPA rules for delays on the project. “Historically the PFAS was an unregulated contaminant and was considered fill material, but that arrangement with the EPA has been evolving over the past few years,” he said.

When asked on Tuesday to explain why the soil testing reports did not mention screening for PFAS, Transurban referred The Age back to Mr Charlton’s previous comments.

The EPA introduced a new PFAS threshold in 2018, after the signing of the West Gate Tunnel contract in 2017.

The contaminants tested in the Golder report complied with Victoria’s current industrial waste guidelines.

Secret internal soil samples prepared for the project in late 2018 and leaked to The Age revealed very high levels of PFAS in the project’s worst hot spots.

Opposition transport infrastructure spokesman David Davis said: “Why didn’t Labor set the rules on PFAS and the toxic soil transparently from the start? Its incompetence pure and simple.”

An EPA spokesman said: EPA continues to take a strict and precautionary approach to PFAS.”

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West Gate Tunnel sheds hundreds of jobs amid soil crisis


The builders wrote to head project contractor Transurban on March 31, advising the company that if a site was not found to dispose of the project’s soil within the next two weeks, it would cut up to 600 jobs in the next 12 weeks.

Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan on Monday hit out at the tunnel builders, describing their actions as “disgraceful”, and accusing them of stalling in finding a solution to the soil crisis.

The state government wrote to Transurban on April 22, confirming that the soil stockpiled along the freeway had received necessary EPA approvals and that there was sufficient licensed landfill capacity to accept it.

The government has been determined to resist pressure to bail the contractors out over the contamination conundrum. Senior government figures have been scathing behind the scenes about the tactics used by Transurban, CPB John Holland with one source accusing the companies of trying to “extort taxpayer money” from the government.

The builders have already used the EPA approvals to remove piles of soil along Footscray Road and the soil stockpiled along the freeway was a very small portion of all the spoil to be unearthed to build the toll road.

Ms Allan said the job losses were unnecessary and were occurring while other businesses were trying to do all they could to keep people employed.

“There is no reason whatsoever for Transurban’s builders, CPB and John Holland, to sack these workers,” Ms Allan said.

“The stockpiles of soil currently on site can be moved immediately – the builder has all the necessary EPA approvals to take this soil to licensed landfill sites.

The job losses come at a difficult time as unemployment surges towards 10 per cent in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and governments seek to bolster job numbers with stimulus spending and borrowing.

“While businesses across Australia are going to extraordinary lengths to keep staff on, Transurban’s builders are proposing to sack up to 600 people because they can’t agree who should pay tip fees – it’s disgraceful,” Ms Allan said.

The builders are in a dispute with Transurban, claiming the issue of soil being contaminated with potentially carcinogenic PFAS chemicals amounts to a force majeure event. Transurban is disputing this claim and is reserving its rights to seek damages from the builders over late delivery.

Sources said there were plans to redeploy the 100 workers directly employed on the West Gate Tunnel on other projects or offer them redundancies. The West Gate Tunnel employs 4000 workers.

Delays and job losses on one of Labor’s signature projects are also a blow to Premier Daniel Andrews’ “can do” reputation and his focus on getting infrastructure built.

Last week, Transurban admitted that the toll road was running late and would not be completed until 2023, instead of 2022.

A Transurban spokeswoman urged the builders to keep the workers employed.

“We are extremely disappointed the CPB John Holland Joint Venture is taking these steps when there are options to keep staff employed,” she said.

“While there are challenges on the project, there are plenty of pathways forward to progress works and we urge the CPB John Holland Joint Venture to keep these people in a job.

“The CPB John Holland Joint Venture has a fixed-price, fixed-time contract to deliver the West Gate Tunnel project including responsibility for all staffing, construction and tunnelling works.”

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West Gate Tunnel soil dumping late, pushing out project timeline


Digging cannot begin until at least one landfill operator is selected to accept the project’s soil, but the project’s builders, CPB Contractors and John Holland, are understood to be falling behind schedule on selecting a dump site.

Initial plans to send the project’s soil to landfill Maddingly Brown Coal in Bacchus Marsh by mid-May appear to have been delayed to at least late July.

Another landfill, Hi-Quality in Bulla, is not likely to be ready to accept soil until November.

All operators still need to construct new containment cells and receive environmental and planning approvals, which is estimated to take at least two months.

Sources said the builders are insisting that all operators must have planning approvals in place before contracts are signed, which is believed to be dragging out the process.

The joint building venture is trying to walk away from the project over the PFAS soil issue, citing a force majeure event. Transurban is disputing this claim and is reserving its rights to seek damages from the builders over late delivery.

Transurban’s group executive of project delivery Tony Adams told investors on Monday the commencement of tunnelling was “probably some months away at this stage”, saying “the tender process was still under way for the soil’s dump site”.

Transurban chief executive Scott Charlton said as recently as February that he believed he could deliver the job by the end of 2022, despite that timeline coming “under pressure” and warnings from its builders that it was not possible.

On Monday, the company told the ASX before an investor briefing that the project was “now expected to be completed in 2023”.

“Commencement of tunnelling requires resolution on a range of matters, including disposal site confirmation, preparatory works, achieving relevant approvals and resolving commercial matters,” the presentation stated.

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Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan said the project’s 2022 timeline was written into Transurban’s contract and the government would hold the company accountable for the delays.

“We’ve made it very clear that we intend to hold Transurban to that contract and what’s contained in that contract is that every day that this project is not completed beyond 2022, Transurban will lose millions of dollars.

“There are penalties around the loss of toll revenue and there are other remedies in the contract.”

Transurban’s contract with the government states the project’s completion date is September 30 2022, and Transurban is responsible for delivering the project on time.

It also states the company will lose tolling and operational rights on the toll road by January 13, 2045, meaning a delay in building the road would eat into the 23-year tolling period unless an extension is granted.

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Transurban warned on PFAS before West Gate Tunnel contracts signed


EPA director Tim Eaton called for a conservative approach in planning for PFAS discovery and disposal.

“Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have recently been the focus of health and environmental investigations and consequently there are emerging concerns about PFAS and the chemical characteristics of PFAS,” Mr Eaton wrote.

“There is now an increased environmental regulatory focus; EPA applies the precautionary approach to the management and disposal of PFAS.

“There are currently limited options available in Victoria for managing or disposing of PFAS-impacted waste.”

However, the West Gate Tunnel’s builders claim they are faced with a “force majeure” event due to the discovery of PFAS, meaning they believe they can walk away because the extent of the problems they now confront was unforseeable when the contracts were signed.

Taxpayers are paying $2.7 billion to build Transurban’s toll road, which will connect the West Gate Freeway in Spotswood and CityLink in the Docklands. CityLink motorists will pay Transurban tolls for an extra 10 years, until 2045, to fund the road. It is supposed to be completed in 2022.

The force majeure claim is the flashpoint in a major dispute between the builders, Transurban and the state government over who is responsible for resolving the PFAS issues, with the builders claiming changes in EPA’s standards have partly led to the project’s delays.

The builders also claim a more serious challenge for the project is that initial soil testing underestimated the amount of contamination, according to a source familiar with the project’s negotiations.

A separate, overarching government report on the project’s environmental impacts found 85 per cent of the rock and soil would be classified as clean fill, meaning it could be reused. The rest was contaminated, with 5 per cent considered severely toxic.

But insiders say vastly more of the waste is contaminated, despite the original assessment being the agreed amount when the contract was signed.

“It is significantly more contaminated,” they said. “The figures in the [report] are not accurate by an order of magnitude.”

This problem risks blowing out the project’s price tag, and is likely to become a key point of contention in any future court battle between the builders, Transurban and the state government.

Dumping contaminated soil in landfill attracts higher rates and a hefty government levy. Burying toxic soil can cost about $500-$800 per tonne, according to estimates by engineering consultancy firm AECOM.

Technical consultants hired by Transurban warned of PFAS contamination but advised it could be managed by the tolling company.

Consultancy firm Golder Associates listed potential sources of PFAS contamination including a former petrol storage facility at Spotswood, a former textile factory in Brooklyn and areas where PFAS was used to fight a fire at the Coode Island chemical storage facility in 1991.

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Their report also warned there was a high risk of PFAS contamination in groundwater along the West Gate Freeway and the M80 Ring Road.

Transurban had not finalised its plan for dealing with project’s soil when the report was published, but the firm’s principal consultant Andrew Kalitsis said he believed the company could manage any contamination risks.

He said there was “sufficient capacity to treat” contaminated soil, while a more detailed design phase for the project would work out how to manage PFAS, he said.

But he noted there was “little regulatory guidance” to assist with PFAS in water underground.

A government spokeswoman said negotiations over a dumping site were well progressed.

A West Gate Tunnel construction site in New Street, South Kingsville.

A West Gate Tunnel construction site in New Street, South Kingsville.Credit:Joe Armao

“The government has been working for months in good faith to help Transurban and its builders resolve the PFAS issue, even though it’s their responsibility under the contract.”

Transurban did not respond to specific questions about their own soil testing before contracts were signed or the findings of the environmental reports.

“We’re continuing to work with project parties and EPA Victoria to finalise plans for tunnelling and have made good progress towards securing appropriate sites for the safe management of tunnel spoil,” a spokeswoman said.

The project’s builders and Golder Associates would not provide comment.

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