The decision last week by the project’s builders John Holland and CPB Contractors to sack half the tunnelling team delivers a blow to the Labor government’s pro-jobs agenda. The government has routinely plugged its infrastructure projects as a key driver of employment in Victoria.
Many of the project’s workers moved their families from interstate, expecting they would work on the West Gate Tunnel for at least two years.
When they returned to work from their Christmas break, they were told half would lose their jobs within a fortnight.
The discovery of PFAS means the project’s builders have to find a landfill operator that could store, process and dump the toxic material according to strict environmental regulations.
Transurban and the project’s builders have been in discussions with three landfill operators since October last year, but are yet to decide where the soil could be sent.
Upgrades estimated to cost $500 million would be needed at the Victorian landfill sites, which are not equipped to treat the contaminated soil or to keep up with 9000 tonnes of waste dug up on the project every day.
AWU state secretary Ben Davis said the project’s builders were “sitting on their hands” on the soil contamination issue and questioned why a short-term solution was not reached to save the Victorian jobs and avoid costly delays.
“It’s inevitable that the cost of constructing the tunnel will increase as a result of this and the question remains as to who will ultimately pick up the tab – the joint venture, Transurban or indeed the taxpayers,” he said.
Mr Davis said there was a scarcity of tunnelling workers in Victoria and it would be a “real shame” if the skilled workforce moved interstate to work on other projects.
Opposition transport infrastructure spokesman David Davis said the toxic soil issue should have been resolved when the project’s contracts were signed and the subsequent delays meant the project’s 2022 deadline was “shaky”.
A Transurban spokesman said the parties were working together to “finalise arrangements for the appropriate disposal of excavated material and the start of tunnelling”.
A state government spokeswoman said Transurban and the project’s builders had a responsibility to ensure the sacked workers found other employment.
“We expect that Transurban and its builder will make every effort to keep these workers on the West Gate Tunnel project or redeploy them to one of the many other projects that CPB and John Holland are currently working on,” she said.
Timna Jacks is Transport Reporter at The Age