Development threatened by toxic legacy

former brickworks building
Graffiti marks the level of care given to the heritage building. Picture: Sofia Levin


Children tumble in the tanbark of a playground while a mothers’ group gaggles and watches over them, oblivious to the metal pipes nearby that are monitoring escaping methane gas. Towering above them, the Hoffman Kiln appears out of place, like a relic of a bygone era, though still imprinted over the Box Hill skyline.

Concealed beneath overgrown branches, a sign hangs on the barbed-wire fence that surrounds the 7.2-hectare former kiln site: “EPA WASTE DISCHARGE NOTICE No EX 286/2.” It is the Environmental Protection Authority’s (EPA) obscured warning that the site was once a landfill.

The eerie structure is part of the heritage-listed former Standard Brickworks, which is perched on the edge of a former landfill quarry. Swampy green pools littered with broken bricks and tyres are scattered around the building. For seven years, an EPA Statement of Environmental Audit has flagged the land as contaminated and it is on the EPA’s list of toxic sites, deemed to present a risk to health or to the environment.

Not everyone in the community is aware of the contamination. “The people who are close by, if you ask them about it, they may not even know why it is fenced off, but it is fenced off clearly for safety,” Elizabeth Meredith of the West of Elgar Residents’ Association said.

“Although it looks grassy, apparently it is a little bit volcanic underneath. In the past people have seen shots of flame come up.” Whitehorse City councillor Helen Harris said children were known to drop lighted matches down shafts on the site, setting off methane explosions.

Despite the derelict appearance and contamination, the site’s owner, Phileo Australia Limited, plans to build a multi-million dollar 79-unit development, Mont Albert Rise, on an L-shaped section of the land next to the former landfill.  In late 2001, the cost of the project was estimated at $30 million, but that was before the Melbourne @5 Million plan which designated Box Hill as a ‘Central Activities District.’

Over the past decade, the residential value of the area has increased due to what Phileo described in its 2010 financial report as “strongly appreciating property values in the adjoining middle-distance suburbs”.

The company purchased the land in 1997 for about $4.5 million. When the development was initially advertised in 2002, the council received more than 180 complaints from the community. In 2006, former Planning Minister Rob Hulls approved a permit to rezone the L-shaped section site from ‘industrial’ to ‘residential’.

“All in all the plans that Phileo have for the site… are very disturbing, so personally we hope that the methane keeps leaking and the EPA never give their permission for development,” local resident Robyn Cornell said.

In 2004, environmental auditor Philip Sinclair from Coffey Geosciences Pty Ltd was appointed by the EPA following a request by Phileo for a Certificate of Environmental Audit to be issued, which would approve the environmental condition of the land as suitable for “any beneficial use’’. However Mr Sinclair refused, saying the following conditions needed to be complied with first. These conditions included that the polluted groundwater be shown to be suitable for a residential development; the landfill would need to be demonstrated to be “posing no unacceptable risk or aesthetic limitation to any use of the site’’; and material on the site would have to be remediated or removed.

Mr Sinclair found the site was suitable for residential use subject to further conditions including that landfill gases were monitored and a gas venting system placed under any buildings.

former brickworks building
The former brickwork’s chimney looms over junk and debris. Picture: Sofia Levin

Phileo Australia Ltd would not respond to questions about its plans for the site. The local community also appears to be unaware of what will happen there. The company stated in its 2010 financial report, “disclosure of other additional information regarding likely developments…is likely to result in unreasonable prejudice to the consolidated group”. It added that it had commissioned architects to draw up “short-term and long-term development scenarios” for the site and that work would start “when it is considered appropriate’’.

“Mont Albert Rise, the proposed residential development at Box Hill, remains a key focus for your directors as planning and environmental issues move slowly towards conclusion,’’ the financial report says. “Development will commence when all statutory requirements are complete and your directors consider the economic environment as appropriate. The key position and strongly appreciating property values in the adjoining middle distance suburbs continue to be an upside for our land holding.’’

The company’s 2011 report states that various development options were being considered for the land. Its 2011 annual general meeting was informed the company was considering higher density development on the site and that the value of the land had increased substantially in the past few years.

Whitehorse City Council’s Open Space Strategy states that the capped landfill – which is surrounded to its north and west by the proposed residential development – would limit development on the former landfill for at least 15 years.

Councillor Harris says: “Years ago [Phileo] offered the council the contaminated area… the problem was they wanted to hang on to the good stuff around the end, and they just wanted to give us the contaminated stuff, which means that then council could potentially be up for millions of dollars in trying to monitor the methane and trying get rid of the methane.” Although Phileo refused to comment on the costs of maintaining the Box Hill site, an independent valuation carried out by the company reported the holding costs alone at more than $3.2 million.

Cr Harris estimates that if the council took possession of the former landfill section of the site, it might have to hold it for decades before anything could be done with it to benefit the community.

“The official recommendation was ‘don’t touch it’ because… we would have to hold it for a period that could run into 20 or 30 years and that couldn’t be moved, couldn’t be touched, nothing could be done to it,” she says. Another concern was the stability of the former landfill site. “The land… is subject to movement so that people couldn’t walk on it. If people walked on it and it moved then council would be liable,” Cr Harris said.

EPA Project Manager, Julia Caluzzi, confirmed Cr Harris’ concern about the costs of a  contamination clean up and management.  “It is hundreds of thousands in my experience, it is even well and truly into the millions of dollars,” she said.

Ruth Ward, spokesperson for the EPA, said that the conditions that needed to be met before the site could be developed came at a price, and not only to the developer. “If a developer is changing land from an industrial to a more sensitive use, they are often the ones who pay for it, and then they will obviously factor that in to their end price for whatever it is that they stick on it [the land].’’

Ms Ward said that Phileo was abiding by a Pollution Abatement Notice (PAN) that was issued in 2004 to complement the audit and ensure that the company monitored the environmental stability of the site. “There is no evidence to suggest the site is posing an unacceptable risk,” she said.

After the brickworks stopped manufacturing in 1988, the enormous, now-grassy space was supposed to be used as a ‘structural’ landfill dump, taking only solid building materials. “There was no supervision of what they put in the landfill, they just tipped everything in it and the gas is coming up all the time. You can smell it on certain days,” said one local from the adjacent Surrey Drive Model  Boat Club.

While methane gas will not directly affect one’s health, unless it accumulates in a closed space and becomes an asphyxiation hazard, it can be explosive if it is within the limit of between 5 and 15 per cent air concentration.

The criterion for the landfill gas assessment during the environmental audit by Mr Sinclair was set at 1.25 per cent, considered to be a relatively “conservative’’ 25 per cent of the lower explosive limit. According to the audit, 24 gas bores were installed across the contaminated site. The gas bore of most concern was located within the deep fill area of the former landfill. The audit states, “Elevated concentrations exceeding the criterion have occurred regularly for this deep-screened bore.” These measurements were taken between 2001 and 2004.

The audit concludes, “methane is migrating from the landfill beneath the audit site… there is a risk that landfill gas/methane could accumulate in air spaces on the audit site. Residences, buildings and services etc. constructed on the site need to take this risk into account…”

A VCAT hearing in 2006 and 2007 granted a permit to Phileo to divide the land into three lots. But Senior VCAT Member Russell Byard voiced concern on behalf of the council that the company would not cover the costs associated with maintaining the site.

The responsible authority is concerned that the present owner of the land namely Phileo Australia Ltd should not simply reap the benefits of the current proposal… and then divest itself of ownership and responsibility for the necessary on-going monitoring and maintenance including the financial costs thereof. There will be these on-going needs, and the responsible authority does not wish to see itself, the community and the EPA left with no-one to carry them out,” he says.

In his 2007 order, Mr Byard said the owner of the landfill site – Phileo – would “retain the responsibility for the ongoing management and monitoring of the environmental issues associated with the landfill site and its proposed use and development, including issues relating to land subsidence, methane gas emissions, leachate, maintenance of groundwater quality and stormwater separation’’.

According to Whitehorse City Council’s general manager of city development, Julie Reid, it is Phileo’s responsibility to maintain the site, while the council is required to ensure that use of the land complies with the Whitehorse Planning Scheme.

The quarry before landfill contamination. Picture: Box Hill Historical Society

A visit to the site indicates that graffitists, squatters and others have entered the fenced off area near the heritage listed brickworks.

The brickworks structure has a heritage overlay, which is meant to pay tribute to the history of the brick making trade. Heritage Victoria’s website praises the “rare and unusually intact brickmaking plant,” which is blemished by graffiti and patched up with rusting corrugated iron.

William Orange, Vice President of the Box Hill Historical Society, is disappointed with the management of the building.

“Phileo have been fairly poor custodians in terms of managing the building, which is significant in the local heritage… The mill building has been left to rot… some of the roofing has rusted through… that is something that probably Heritage Victoria needs to be chased about,” he says. Heritage Victoria did not return phone calls.

In a landmark class action, more than 750 houses were compensated a total of $23.5 million after dangerous levels of methane gas were found in Cranbourne homes in 2008, having leaked from a closed landfill nearby.

VCAT approved a residential subdivision that the local council had previously refused. Yet it was the City of Casey that had to fork out millions of dollars in compensation. “Even if [Phileo] built the units they wouldn’t be able to sell them after the fiasco down at Cranbourne… everybody is aware of methane now and the implications and I think that is probably why they are not building,” Cr Harris said.

Local resident Robyn Cornell is anxious that the development will still go ahead, despite the environmental and community concerns.

“We were most alarmed at the medium/high density housing proposed for the fringe area… If you go onto the Phileo website though you see that they still consider it a valuable piece of real estate and are looking forward to developing it when given permission, so the idea is far from dead,” she says.

After Phileo’s permit expired last year, the company applied for, and was granted, an extension of time.