I go out with my local gang of idiosyncratic recumbent bike riders for three or four hours of conversation, coffee and exercise almost every weekend. Two weeks ago we started riding from the village of Somerville, a good hour south of Melbourne, down along the Mornington Peninsula   It was a lovely day, but windy.  The ride was a workout in my condition.  The flu had kept me inactive for several weeks.

During our lunch break I learned that we were within striking distance of the suburb of Cranbourne, which had generated headlines a day earlier.  The unfortunate homeowners of Brookland Greens housing estate had been informed by the EPA that their houses could explode.  There was, naturally. a certain amount of shock, anger, consternation and dismay.  Since then, there has been talk of a class action suit.

It seems that Peet and Company, the developer, had challenged the decision by the City of Casey to keep a buffer zone between the development and the local landfill.  The EPA (Environmental Protection Authority) agreed with the City and even suggested expanding the buffer zone.  Peet then turned to the Victorian Civll and Administrative Authority.  The tribunal consisted of a lawyer and an industrial chemist, who overruled the EPA and the City, dismissing their advice as well as that of an environmental consultant hired by the developer.  The buffer disappeared.

One of the houses was found to have a 60% level of methane in a wall cavity.  Methane can ignite at much lower levels.  When Peet purchased the property, an environmental audit was not required despite the fact that the land was located next to a tip (landfill,) a sand mine and chicken broiler farms.

At a public hearing, local resident Caroline Clover was full of questions:  “You worry about what could happen if this methane keeps building up… Is there going to be an explosion?  If one house has methane gas, can the next explode?”  Homeowners who bought mansions in Cranbourne for half a million dollars feared the values of their investments would plummet.

The Cranbourne landfill operated between June 1996 and June 2005.  It was capped with a meter (yard) of clay in 2006, The EPA recommended that the gas extraction process be monitored for a year before building anwhere near the site, but that, too, was ignored.

At the public hearing, Michael Jensen, the Casey council environmental team leader said the methane level that triggered the outcry had surprised him. “Gas will be produced on the site for thirty years, But the infrastructure being put in place will be designed to take the gas out,” he said.  “We’ve got something like 1300 cubic metres (yards) of methane being generated each hour, and probably a couple of hundred cubic metres of that each hour is finding its way to the environment and at times into Brookland Greens estate.”

The residents at risk are being offered $8,500 each to help them move, as well as $1,000 in emergency grants.  Several investigations are now underway and dozens of owners of landfills in the metropolitan area have been put on notice by the EPA to clean up their act.  Thirty-six landfills in or around Melbourne are registered as “priority sites” for monitoring or cleanup.

In the meantime, the residents of Brookland Greens are watching and waiting and keeping a close eye on the gas monitors.  Colette Bruton has lived at the estate for a year and has three monitors in her house.  “We just don’t know who to believe because everyone is blaming everyone else,” she said.

Last week our bike ride began in Altona, an industrial suburb to the west of Melbourne.  We began at a pretty place called Cherry Lake, but part of our journey followed the historic open sewer that used to take the City’s industrial wastes to the outfall at the town of  Werribee.  Our path took us around a giant landfill.

All it took was a little imagination to visualize the next new development, when Brookland Greens and the subprime mortgage mess have been forgotten, covered over with a thick layer of spin.  “Altona Estates. Exceptional Value!  Free gas hookups free for the barbie and the cooker.  Buy now, pay later.”