The plumes of dust started drifting over the paddocks as work started on a $300 million project to build a 107-turbine wind farm in the countryside surrounding the Country Fire Authority’s former Fiskville training college.
As digging began last year on the deep footings for turbines that will stand 171 metres high, it stirred up dirt that was carried off by the wind.
The dust could be seen for miles. And it had some neighbours worried. Tests at nearby Beremboke Creek in 2012 and 2015 had confirmed the presence of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl – the toxic chemicals known as PFAS and used in products including firefighting foam – on land near Fiskville.
The contamination of properties downstream from Fiskville was revealed during a 2016 parliamentary inquiry into the academy.
Fiskville, 95 kilometres west of Melbourne, is one of Victoria’s most notorious toxic sites.
PFAS heavily contaminated the former CFA training college over decades, and was linked to cancer cases in many firefighters who worked and trained there. Fiskville was shut down in 2015 after the deaths of at least 16 former firefighters from cancer.
It has long been the source of complaints from neighbours, who say their health and properties have been seriously affected.
A number of them had also had cancer, the inquiry noted. It described the CFA’s contamination of neighbouring properties as a “grave offence”.
Michelle Evans, who lives south of Fiskville at nearby Mount Wallace, regularly took photos of the dust caused by earthmoving blowing across the paddocks during work on the southern section of the wind farm, which will contain 57 turbines.
She and nearby resident Janene Skidmore, who already has a wind farm across the road from her property, will each have turbines about one kilometre from their back fences.
While the dust was a regular annoyance and source of concern over what it might carry over their land, an explosion that came without warning over summer as subcontractors blasted through rock shocked them.
A video posted to YouTube by a civil engineering company, ACE Contracting Group, shows a blast set off about 1.35pm on February 2, by subcontractor Sequel Drill and Blast. It kicked up dirt and rocks, and sent a big plume of dust streaming off into the distance.
Neighbours had already complained about construction spreading dust across the area and potentially into rainwater tanks that hold their drinking water. The explosion made them more worried about risks to their health, and to those working on the project.
They alerted Goldwind, Moorabool Shire, the Victorian Wind Farm Manager and Planning Minister Richard Wynne about the disruption of large amounts of soil and their fears about contamination.
“[We] were informed that developer Goldwind would be responsible for management of the risk,” Ms Evans said. “We felt that this response was inadequate and referred the matter to the National Wind Farm Commissioner, who insisted that the EPA conduct an audit of identified contamination of the district.
“We are alarmed that so little consideration has been demonstrated by the shire, the state government, the NWFC or the Victorian Wind Farm Manager, of whom we requested soil testing be carried out at wind turbine sites,” Ms Evans said.
Moorabool Shire said it had responded to complaints about dust, but would not specify how many.
“The wind farm has been working closely with the neighbours to respond directly to the complainants,” it said.
Goldwind had sought the necessary permits for the blasting, according to the shire.
Ms Skidmore asked the council to test her rainwater tank for PFAS after she noticed an unusually large build-up of dirt in the filter after work started on the wind farm. The shire engaged Central Highlands Water to conduct the tests.
While she received results in May, for tests for metals and chemicals in her water, she realised the results for PFAS, which a council environmental officer told her were clear, were based on samples from another property.
When Ms Skidmore questioned why her tank water had not been tested for PFAS, she was told the other property’s results would suffice for the broader area (even though her land is closer to the creek and Fiskville).
Moorabool Shire told The Sunday Age it believed Ms Skidmore’s tank had been tested previously for PFAS and so another test was not warranted.
Ms Skidmore says those tests were conducted by the CFA in 2017, long before Goldwind began construction, and would not have registered any soil dispersed by wind farm works.
Some nearby landowners have signed “neighbourhood agreements” with Goldwind, providing access to their land for turbine construction in return for what is believed to be up to $13,000 a year.
As a result, many would not speak about health concerns, or felt they could not due to the terms of the agreement, Ms Evans said.
A number of neighbours have left, some after they were bought out by the CFA, which has offered blood tests to residents who fear they may be affected by contamination. Many who remain feel stuck, as the value of their properties has dropped due to Fiskville and the wind farm.
The owners of at least three properties where PFAS was found during testing by the CFA refused permission for the results to be released to the EPA or to the parliamentary inquiry into Fiskville.
One family, whose property borders CFA Fiskville and backs on to Beremboke Creek, have had a quarter of their 130-hectare farm cordoned off since PFAS was detected, blocking access to three dams they had used for their cattle.
The landowners, who did not wish to comment, have had no access to 34 hectares of their own land for more than three years as a result.
Beremboke Creek previously ran through several dams on the CFA site and the man-made Lake Fiskville at the academy. (It has since been diverted to avoid further contamination). The creek floods regularly and has done so again in recent weeks following heavy rain.
Chinese-owned Goldwind Australia took over the Moorabool Wind Farm in 2016, buying it from German-backed West Wind, which originated the project.
The project is divided into two main sites – Moorabool North and Moorabool South. It is one of three wind energy developments over five sites approved in the district.
Once they are completed, Ms Skidmore’s farm will be surrounded by turbines.
She already has turbines in front of her property, from Pacific Hydro’s Yaloak South Wind Farm, completed in June. Yaloak South has 14 turbines with a maximum height of 126 metres.
Goldwind had refused entreaties from residents to reduce the footprint of its project, or reposition turbines to appease neighbours’ concerns, Ms Evans said.
Boosting Victoria’s sources of renewable energy, such as wind farms, was a key Labor promise at the 2018 state election.
Moorabool Wind Farm received planning approval in 2010, under the previous government, before Fiskville’s contamination was exposed.
Mr Wynne signed off on amendments to the permit in October 2017 and April 2018 to increase the height of the turbine arms (which are about the length of a jumbo jet).
He approved the environment management plan for the project based on the original approach outlined in West Wind’s first planning permit application in January 2010.
The current planning permit makes no mention of Fiskville or contamination of nearby land.
Goldwind has acknowledged the presence of PFAS in Beremboke Creek, and concerns about potential effects from construction, in a community leaflet.
The leaflet says it engaged an independent expert to assess any risk to human health and the environment from potential exposure to PFAS during construction of the wind farm.
The expert’s analysis was that there were “low levels [of] PFAS impacts in surface water and sediment derived from … Fiskville” on Moorabool South Wind Farm.
Goldwind appears to have conducted none of its own testing before beginning construction, instead relying on studies by the CFA between 2005 and 2013 – some of which were roundly criticised in the parliamentary inquiry – and a 2014 EPA audit.
Goldwind provided a general response to The Sunday Age‘s queries, but did not answer questions about neighbourhood agreements and testing for PFAS.
“Construction of the wind farm project is undertaken in accordance with the planning permit, endorsed management plans, and all other relevant legislation and regulations which manage and control activities such as blasting,” managing director John Titchen said.
Moorabool Shire said it had not tested soil, sediment or water on the wind farm site.
The CFA says it is on track to complete remediation of Fiskville and meet the conditions of two EPA clean-up notices.
It had “completed work to manage and contain impacted water from leaving the site”, a spokeswoman said.
“CFA is taking all necessary steps to rehabilitate and manage the Fiskville site and affected surrounding areas (and) … is working closely with our neighbours to ensure interim controls are in place.”
It said it was not, however, responsible for the long-term management of contamination on neighbouring properties.
One EPA notice requires the CFA to manage contaminated soils and sediments and treat PFAS contaminated surface water by June 2020. A second notice requires it to submit plans by the end of this month for further assessment and management of any risk associated with PFAS beyond the Fiskville boundary.
Failure to comply can result in a fine of up to $386,856.
The EPA said it had used its statutory power to require the CFA assess risks and determine what long-term measures or clean-up might be required.
“CFA will be responsible for the ongoing assessment and implementation of these actions relating to pollution it has caused, in co-operation with landowners.”
Asked whether the government had paid any of the compensation for those affected by contamination at Fiskville, as it promised in 2016, and whether it would include neighbours, the state government said: “We’ve established a dedicated redress scheme for Fiskville-affected persons based on the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry into the CFA training college.
“We acted swiftly to close the site in 2015, and we are acting on the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry and that includes continuing to examine redress scheme options,” a spokeswoman said.
Wind farm construction is not considered a sensitive land use in Victoria, and therefore does not require consideration of potential land contamination.
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