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This decommissioned, contaminated service station site at Dandenong South has been on the EPA’s Priority Sites Register for over 10 years. Photo: Kaymolly Morrelle

More than twenty currently operating service stations in Victoria are contaminated sites with a potential risk to public and environmental health. A further 22 former service stations and 11 petroleum storages are listed by Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority as being contaminated.

The sites’ addresses are made public on a Priority Sites Register on the EPA website. Little further information is available to the public and the EPA appears reluctant to provide details of the contamination, despite a review that recommended it lift its performance with key stakeholders, including residents.

The Priority Sites Register is updated monthly and does not include all known contaminated sites, only those posing “an unacceptable risk to human health or to the environment”.  The only public information comes in the form of a few words from the EPA:  Current (/Former) Service Station. Requires assessment and/or clean up.

The EPA’s website does not identify a site’s owners, nor specify the contaminants posing the health risk. No dates are given of when the contamination occurred or when the notice was issued. During a subsequent remediation process, no further information is made available to the public via the website. EPA spokespeople say it is not required to further notify the public. “We do make it available, but we don’t go out of our way to notify residents or businesses,” a customer service officer at the Dandenong branch told Dangerous Ground.

A recent internal review of the EPA, recommended that its policy should support disclosure by stakeholders of the risks of environmental hazards likely to impact on health and information on compliance and enforcement.

None of the four contaminated service stations visited in researching this article displayed any signs to visitors warning that the sites posed potential health risks.

“It’s not required,” EPA director Mr Matt Vincent said. However, the EPA would insist that signs went up “if we deemed that there was a significant risk to human health in terms of people interacting or being near that site”, he said. “If it’s under the ground and there’s not vapours coming up that are going to cause an issue for people, it’s not necessary—in fact it would probably just cause more concern from the community than is actually necessary.”

“What our experience shows is that if the community is only given partial information, it can actually lead to a lot of unnecessary fear, and, you know, that fear, in some cases, in extreme cases, can actually have health impacts of its own: people living with that stress.”

Neighbours living near the four sites were unaware of the existence of the EPA’s Priority Sites Register. Assistant Principal Ms Michele Nolan has been at Oakleigh Primary School for over three years and did not know the Shell service station across the street was issued with a Clean Up Notice for contaminated groundwater in April 2009. (The EPA can issue Clean Up Notices that order an occupier or polluter to take clean up activities within a certain timeframe or face fines of up to $300,000).

Ms Nolan had not noticed any vapours from the site on the corner of Dandenong Road and Warrigal Road. “But being on Warrigal Road, you wouldn’t know where any vapours were coming from,” she said. The service station was closed while site work took place for some weeks in 2011, but the site remains on the EPA’s register. (At the time of publication, Shell had not responded to inquiries about the site’s remediation. Neither had the EPA provided requested details of the contaminants and the duration of the sites contamination.)

Service stations comprise a small proportion of the more than 300 sites on the EPA’s Priority Sites Register A contaminated site remains on the register at least until the owners have complied with all requirements. Site owners are served with either Clean Up Notices or Pollution Abatement Notices. Despite the possibility of hefty fines, some sites have been on the register for more than 10 years.

Site owners are initially directed to engage an environmental auditor and to provide a plan to “assess and/or clean up” contamination. The EPA specifies progress dates for the site-specific actions to be undertaken. It is virtually impossible for the public to determine whether the remediation has taken place unless they actually witness the work being done. They can examine the register, however few people would know of its existence.

Public access to further information on the nature and progress of a clean up, or on the site owner’s level of compliance, only comes once the EPA receives either a final Statement or Certificate of Environmental Audit, reporting the clean up is complete. Prepared by licensed environmental auditors, the certificates assess the remediated site and define acceptable beneficial uses and any restrictions on future use if contamination is still present.

In the last two years, EPA Victoria has been intensely scrutinised and criticised in reports by the Victorian Auditor General; the Ombudsman and an independent internal review by Mr Stan Krpan. Delivered in December 2010, Mr Krpan’s review of EPA compliance and enforcement activities made 119 recommendations. The review called for a committed transformation of EPA operations, and greater transparency with those it protects: the Victorian community.

“EPA’s vision is to be a modern regulator that is energetic, transparent, accountable, willing to be judged on environmental outcomes and open to scrutiny of our decision making.”

“The Victorian community is …(the EPA’s) most important client and the beneficiary of its actions.”

In response, the EPA has gone out on what Mr Krpan has called ‘regional roadshows’ to meet Victorians in their communities. Some 30 of Mr Krpan’s recommendations had been acted upon in the nine months following the review. “We’re trying all the time to get more transparent with our website…  so people have the raw data, not just the summary information that we provide,” Mr Vincent said.

Contamination from service stations usually comes from toxic petrochemical and hydrocarbon compounds that leak from compromised underground fuel storage systems or spills during tank filling. Petrol vapours contaminate the air and are immediately toxic to breathe, but land and water can becomes seriously contaminated when underground storage tanks leak for years.

The contaminated site directly above Ringwood Lake parkland, a popular playground and recreation area. Photo: Kaymolly Morrelle

The Australian Institute of Petroleum’s current Environment Policy Statement was written in 1991. It states “AIP member companies in Australia share the general community concern for conservation of the environment.” The policy includes an aim to “maintain open communication with the Governments and local communities”.

Commercial sensitivity and considerations of brand image do come into play when it comes to discussing contaminated sites. Some site owners were reluctant or ‘unavailable’ when approached for this investigation. However, Caltex property manager for Victoria and Tasmania, Mr Andrew McFadyen said “Caltex is diligent with site remediation and takes its environmental obligations very seriously”. Caltex owns a site at Dandenong South that has been on the Priority Sites Register for over 10 years.

“Ten years is not unusual for complex remediation and while some clean ups might take only months, others are very complicated, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Mr McFadyen said.  “That’s the cost of doing business. You might have a service station that’s 70 years old, that’s had multiple spills 50 or 60 years ago from old steel tanks, so you might have a much longer remediation process,” he said. “Caltex hands back sites in as good or better condition than when they took them on—most of the majors operate like that.” There are greater cost issues for the smaller, private companies, he added.

For smaller service station owners, the remediation process can be extremely expensive. Long-time owner of a service station at Red Hill, on the Mornington Peninsula, Mr Alan Pittock was faced with a $28,000 clean up after a fuel discharge in 2010. Mr Pittock’s family had run Red Hill’s service station for several decades, but had leased it out at the time of the spill. There had been an issue with diesel a few years earlier, but in August 2010 fuel was reported discharging from a storm water drain across the road, below the ‘United’- badged site. The EPA immediately issued a Clean Up Notice and remediation took place. An insurance company footed 90% of the bill.

Fuel spilled and drained into bushland opposite a service station at Red Hill. Photo: Kaymolly Morrelle

The EPA says it does not go easy on businesses responsible for remediation, irrespective of size. “I think you need to be fair and reasonable… you’ve really got to weigh up what is the true risk…what is the capacity of this business or industry…to get things done. But at the end of the day, we can’t compromise health and we can’t compromise the health of the environment,” Mr Vincent said.

The BTEX compounds (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylene and Xylenes) in petrol are recognised by The World Health Organisation and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council as being toxic and in some cases potentially carcinogenic to humans. Benzene, a significant component of petrol, is linked to leukaemia. These compounds are also potentially carcinogenic and deadly to some animal and aquatic life.

So, what of the risks to workers on the sites? Occupational Health expert at Monash University, Dr David Goddard says that while benzene is linked to leukaemia and is the most toxic member of the BTEX compounds, the level of concentration and the duration of exposure are keys to assessing health risks. “A large amount in a single dose, such as when someone is using petrol to wipe a surface, has a very different effect to sustained low level exposure,” Dr Goddard said.

“If you’re demolishing a petrol station, digging up the ground, it’s difficult to establish the extent of exposure. An excavator driver would be a couple of metres away from it and although he may breathe disturbed vapours, any wind would carry them away and he’s not there for long.

“Leukaemia can take 15-20 years to occur. Some people will develop it with benzene exposure; some without – and some who have been exposed will not get leukaemia at all,” Dr Goddard said.

Ground water contamination can be harder to contain. It can extend far beyond the source site, lying as a ‘plume’ of petrochemicals on top of underground water on the water table. This may be quite close to the surface, rising further in seasons of heavy rainfall. A residual contaminated plume can sit under flat land or be carried to bore water, streams, lakes and the sea, threatening human and environmental health.

On the flat plain of the Dandenong South Industrial Zone there is a ‘current’ service station site at 230-232 Frankston-Dandenong Road. It has been on the EPA register for more than 10 years. According to a customer service officer at the EPA’s Dandenong office, a site would stay on the register if it has a ‘legacy’ from the initial contamination, despite considerable clean up action undertaken by the owners. Former EPA Communications spokesperson Ms Ruth Ward said that a remediated site could stay on the Priority Sites Register for 20 or 30 years if health risks remained.

At the Dandenong South site, owned by Caltex, on the corner of Elliott Road and Frankston-Dandenong Road, all buildings and signage are long gone, but the site is still listed as a ‘current’ service station by the EPA. Narrow, bright yellow bore pipes stick up a metre above the former underground petrochemical storage tanks. The bores allow ongoing access to monitor the contamination of both the earth and the water table that extends wide below it.

Through the cyclone fence a few metres from the door of his Dandenong South pizza oven business, Barry Drake has watched the clean up activity on the old service station site. The EPA issued a Clean Up Notice back in 2001. He saw the storage tanks being removed some years ago. He watched the contaminated earth being dug out to a depth of six or seven meters and replaced with packed sand.

Surveyors worked on the site last winter and new green shade cloth went up on the cyclone perimeter fences. Mr Drake doesn’t think the site has affected him or his business. The old service station site is relatively small compared to today’s supersized service stations.

Jack Clues, a friend of Mr Drake’s has watched the efforts by Caltex Australia Petroleum to deal with the old site’s contamination. “They pumped continually, for ages and ages. The petrol lays on top of the groundwater and the water table around here is not that far down”, Mr Clues said.

Mr Jagdeep Singh owns The Road Runner Deli Café across the side street from the site. He didn’t see any surveyors, but noticed the new green shade cloth one day last winter when he returned from a short break. Mr Singh had known nothing of the Priority Site Register, nor of the site’s contamination, when he’d bought the corner café a few months earlier. Neither the agent nor the previous owner told him he was buying a café next to contaminated land. “Someone said a petrol station used to be there. No-one made it clear – they didn’t say why the petrol station was removed.’’

Mr J Singh’s Road Runner Deli Cafe faces the Dandenong South site. Photo: Kaymolly Morrelle

The third of EPA Victoria’s eight guiding principles is to be “Transparent – enforcement actions will be public, to build the credibility of, and confidence in, EPA’s regulatory approach and processes.”

Uninformed as it is of the specific contaminants and the extent of contamination of over 300 Priority Sites, can the public make informed choices about the risks posed to health and environment? Choices about where to buy land, where to work, where to let children play in the dirt, where to fish or plant veggies?

What is an acceptable risk in relation to contaminated land or water? Reporting on Carcinogenic Risk Assessment for Soil Contaminants, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council observed that acceptable risk also changes when it is not your choice whether to be exposed or not”. Are nine words on the Priority Sites Register enough?

Kaymolly Morrelle is a Masters student in the School of Journalism at Monash University. She is a member of the national award winning Dangerous Ground team of investigative journalists, under the supervision of senior lecturer Bill Birnbauer. The Dangerous Ground project investigates the Victorian Environment Protection Authority’s management of contaminated sites. In 2012, The Dangerous Ground website was awarded the Journalism Education Association of Australia’s 2012 Ossie award for Best Use of Convergent Media.  Dangerous Ground also won a Monash Arts Faculty award in 2012, announced by the Dean, Rae Frances.

This article was originally published on Dangerous Ground in 2012 and can be accessed at http://artsonline.monash.edu.au/dangerousground/service-station-risks-stay-buried/

See also: The EPA responds: Interview with Matt Vincent – interview by Kaymolly Morrelle for Dangerous Ground.

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This work by Kaymolly S. Morrelle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.