An independent report has found “staggering” levels of new contaminants, including mercury gas, reigniting the fears of residents who have waited almost four years for a clean-up.
“I’m far more worried about it now,” resident Glenis Pace said this week.
“Potentially, what Parks Victoria has been doing has been making it worse.”
Mrs Pace lives close to the Liddell’s Calcine Sands site burnt in the 2009 bushfires.
She is one of a group who sent letters last month to Parks Victoria, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Minister for Environment and Climate Change Ryan Smith, demanding the release of soil and air testing information.
Andrew Helps, managing director of a company which specialises in mercury recovery, supplied test results from the area around the Bendigo Regional Park site.
Those tests showed elevated levels of mercury, arsenic and lead.
The results showed a total “soil hazard loading” that, in one sample, is 100 times higher than what the EPA.
Mr Helps, whose company Hg tendered this week for the remediation contract, has also told the residents the works proposed by Parks Victoria has the potential to increase the hazard.
He said the “carbon-based” hydromulch put in place as a temporary measure to prevent migration of the toxic sands has added to the dangers.
“The addition of this carbon-based material along with rain and atmospheric nitrogen deposition, coupled with exceptionally high levels of potassium in the sands, leads to a large increase in bacterial action,” Mr Helps said.
“This bacterial action is the trigger for mercury and arsenic to convert into methylated forms which are gases that are very toxic if inhaled.”
Mr Helps claimed Parks Victoria has not taken the “off-gassing” into account, and that it poses a risk “to both the workers on site and the general public in the Bendigo area."
“It’s very scary,” Mrs Pace said.
“We have never seen their (Parks Victoria’s) test results, but now, if tests aren’t dated 2012, I wouldn’t trust them anyway, they aren’t worth anything.”
The new concerns about hazards at the site come after a planning process that has taken more than three years and been dogged by controversy.
The issue first came to public attention when, in March 2010, resident Henry Ott described to the Bendigo Weekly the legacy of the destructive fires in January 2009.
The slow progress of remediation works on land that was dangerous to live near had taken its toll on his health.
Finally, after repeated promises that remediation was imminent, an audit commissioned by Parks Victoria was eventually approved by the EPA last month.
That audit, by an unnamed independent auditor, was meant to “assess the level of risk the site posed to the environment (including human health), the extent of contamination and what the recommended clean up approach should be,” according to an EPA spokesperson.
In March, Parks Victoria’s ranger in charge, David Major, said the auditor’s endorsement was “a formality”.
In August, no one – not the EPA, nor Parks Victoria, nor Minister Smith – was able to explain why that formality took a year instead of the six weeks as originally suggested.
Now, those who have had a front-row seat to the long-running drama, are, ironically, calling for a hold on the remediation works as a result
of the information supplied by Mr Helps’ company.
“We now have an email saying no works will commence until the residents are satisfied it is the right way to go,” Mrs Pace said.
“We will be demanding they do more soil testing.”
Mr Ott said he’s had enough.
“We shouldn’t be living here, it’s above all standards for safety,” he said.
“Nobody will show us anything, we’ve never seen the tests.
“I just want to move out.”