Radioactive cow carcasses found at Werribee site with plans for a $20 billion education precinct

Radioactive cow carcasses found at Werribee site with plans for a $20 billion education precinct
Radioactive cow carcasses found at Werribee site with plans for a $20 billion education precinct

Sixty cow carcasses with radioactive material are buried underneath a piece of land in Werribee in Melbourne's west which the Victorian state government plans to sell to a Chinese consortium with plans for a $20 billion education precinct.

The cost of cleaning up the radioactive waste could reach $300 million, with another $770 million needed to remove thousands more cow carcasses considered a biological hazard, Fairfax Media reported citing documents it obtained about the site.  

The discovery has the potential to jeopardise the deal between the state government and Investors Direct, the exclusive bidder on the 775-hectare site. 

The site was part of the old State Research Farm where scientific testing on animals was conducted for decades.

Consulting company Coffey Environment, which assessed the site in 2009, noted in its report that "animals that have been subjected to testing with radioactive tracer dyes" were buried at the site. The report lists the cow carcasses as a "possible biological and radiological hazard" and says the contamination could impact both soil and groundwater.

Fairfax Media quoted the report as saying that "the tracer dye used was predominantly tritium" which "has a half-life of approximately 12 years". The report adds that "these practices were understood to have ceased at the site in the mid 1990s".

As it decays, tritium releases radioactive isotopes that, according to overseas reports, can be dangerous to human health for about 120 years.

Radioactive isotopes can enter the human body via food that has been grown in contaminated soil. Just to the south of the contaminated site are many of Werribee's market gardens.

The news article said the state government has said a recent study has indicated no radioactive material has polluted soil or groundwater on the property, but that report is yet to be made public.

The investor consortium has former Victorian premier John Brumby as an adviser. It  plans to build an  Australian Education City  which will be home to 80,000 residents and 50,000 students.

The Victorian state government and VicUrban were told that radioactive cow carcasses were buried on four hectares of land in Werribee in early 2009, when Brumby was premier. 

The burial of radioactive cows was confirmed by the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), which has not revealed why the cows were treated with radioactive tritium dyes. The DPI has, however, "indicated historic burial of potentially radioactive carcasses" over a number of zones within the greenfield site.

The article cited a government spokesman as saying that the Victorian government was in contact with the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Ongoing discussions continue with EPA and the environmental consultants about how best to deal with the material, potentially onsite containment or offsite treatment and disposal," the spokesman said. "Recent and extensive testing of the site has been conducted as part of phase 2 due diligence confirmed that there is no risk to residents or groundwater.":

Negotiations between the state government and the Australian Education City bid are said to be "advanced", with a decision on the site originally scheduled for February 15.

The Investors Direct consortium is led by former Price Waterhouse Cooper executive Bill Zheng, and has the backing of Chinese institutional and corporate investors.

Werribee Radioactive


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