For years the Mobil oil refinery provided jobs and money for Melbourne's west. Since its closure, the site's future has been up in the air
For more than half a century, the Mobil oil refinery was at the heart of Melbourne's industrial west.
But since its closure two years ago, vastly different hopes for the site's future have emerged.
While Mobil and the local council make plans for more industry in the region, many residents say it's time for a new era of green businesses and space.
It's a Thursday night and the Williamstown Soccer Club is humming.
The grounds are brightly lit, a coach is shouting instructions to teenage boys as icy winds whip up off nearby Port Phillip Bay.
It's a pretty typical suburban sporting scene.
What's unusual is the backdrop.
Behind these soccer fields you can see the outline of huge tanks which were once vital parts of the neighbouring Mobil oil refinery.
Here, suburban life has long been lived right alongside this heavy industry.
But that started to change in 2021 when Mobil announced it was closing the refinery — costing the area 300 jobs.
Spread across large tracts of land between the suburbs of Altona and Williamstown, and just 15 kilometres from Melbourne's CBD, the refinery had spent its life as both a major employer and a major polluter in this part of the west.
A significant business for the state while in operation, it was also intricately linked to the local community, sponsoring events and employing families across generations. 
But when the refinery was running, neighbours also had to contend with the odours and smoke caused by its operations, and at times, the fuel spills from the site.
Before it closed, the Australian Conservation Foundation had ranked Altona as the second-most polluted suburb in the country — the refinery had caused 86 per cent of the suburb's emissions.
Those heavy industry emissions, along with high truck traffic, has largely been responsible for suburbs across Melbourne's inner west becoming a hot spot for air-pollution-linked illnesses like asthma, lung cancer and heart disease.
So when the refinery was closed, the reaction from the surrounding suburbs was mixed.
"Some people in the community thought that was a good thing because they didn't particularly like a refinery in the local area but for a contributor like Mobil to our local economy, a lot of people were disappointed and concerned for what that meant for local jobs," remembers Hobsons Bay Mayor Tony Briffa.
That divide can still be heard today.
At the heart of the debate are very different views on the future of this part of western Melbourne, and the future of jobs and energy in this country.
On game day at the Williamstown Soccer Club,  parents chat while they watch their children play in front of the refinery tanks.
Matt is the manager of Williamstown's under-12 boys team, he lives up the road in Altona North and is keen to see unused refinery infrastructure pulled down, describing it as an "eyesore".
"I think it would be great for the area if they got rid of it eventually and either extended the soccer grounds … or put in sports facilities or parkland for the kids," he says.
He is not the only one who wants any surplus land repurposed for community facilities.
Lisa Cannon lives in Williamstown and is a mum at the club. 
She says the area has seen higher density housing added in recent years, but community infrastructure hasn't kept pace. She'd like council to purchase some of the land.
"We would love to see for the community a swimming pool, an aquatic centre, some kinds of sports fields, especially for some of the football clubs," she says.
Another parent at the club, Richard Owen, is keen to see "more parks, more playgrounds for children, more greenery and trees".
Across the road, local resident Matt runs into the ABC while playing with his black labs at a nearby park.
For the past 10 years he has lived just a few hundred metres from the refinery and says he was glad when he heard it was closing down.
"It's not too bad now because there are no lights, there's no smoke, there are no flames, there is no noise," he says.
He'd like to see an old train station in the area reopened and more retail space added.
"Altona North is a good suburb, it is close to the city, you know it is only 10 or 12 kilometres as the crow flies, but it gets a bit undersold," he says.
But he doesn't believe the area's future should include plans for more high-polluting, heavy industry.
"I don't want to see something like-for-like as a replacement," Matt says.
He wants to see a different kind of investment in his suburb.
He's not the only one.
Bruce Mountain stands in Williamstown, looking at old, rusted metal tanks that Mobil also owns a little further alog Port Phillip Bay. 
From here, you can hear the water lapping up against the banks of the land.
On a clear day, there's a perfect view of the city skyline. 
Bruce is more than a casual observer here though.
He is a Williamstown local, but he also runs the energy centre at Victoria University where he is an energy economist with a background in both engineering and accounting.
And he sees the Mobil refinery site as a vital piece of land.
"The Altona site is in an ideal location in Melbourne, it is now in the middle suburbs, excellent transport links, a great deal of land," he explains.
Given Australia's housing shortage, he'd like to see any unused sections of the property considered for future housing and additional green space if it can be properly cleaned up.
But what hugely excites him is the possibility of using some of the property for battery storage.
"A key to decarbonising electrical supply is wind and solar and storage, we need the storage for when we don't have the wind and sun," he says.
"So we will need land exactly like we have here to put on battery banks, it would fit in entirely with the historic use of the land, it is unobtrusive, it is safe."
He wants the Victorian and federal governments to be part of the planning for the future of any surplus land here.
"I would encourage the authorities to not be hostage to the past, have some imagination and fit in with the change of the times," he says.
While many residents hope some of the Mobil site can be repurposed for community needs, Geoff Mitchelmore reckons that is highly unlikely.
"If you realised what was underneath it, you wouldn't want your kids playing there," he warns.
Geoff is well known in Melbourne's west for his decades of work creating urban forests on this side of industrial Melbourne.
What many people don't know is that he had an earlier career as a senior scientist in the oil and gas industry.
In the 1960s he worked on the Altona refinery site, testing the fuel for the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria.
Later, he became its chief scientist. In the late 1980s he flew around the world studying the rehabilitation of contaminated industrial sites.
He has also been a volunteer on Mobil's community liaison group for the past 20 years, which is intended as a link between the company and the refinery's surrounding neighbourhood.
Geoff believes the level of contamination that is likely at the Altona site will limit its future use.
"I would say that whole area, particularly where the refining took place would be really, really heavily contaminated, and I doubt whether they would ever be able to completely remove all of the contaminants," he says.
He cites Mobil's history of spills on the property as a concern.
Between 2004 and 2006, hundreds of thousands of litres of petrol were spilled from a corroded pipe near the Williamstown cemetery, an event which saw Mobil fined and ordered to clean up the mess.
In February 2010, the ABC reported 16,000 litres of petrol had leaked from a tank at the refinery, requiring firefighters to pour foam over the spill. The EPA said at the time that the spill was confined within a bund, which is a wall.
In 2013, the Herald Sun reported about 100 litres of crude oil being spilt from the site and in 2017 hundreds of litres of fuel were reported to have leaked, with Mobil saying at the time it did not impact on staff or the community.
And Geoff says the past use of the site should be of concern.
"They were also manufacturing tar in there for a while and that is also a nasty product," he says.
The ABC can also reveal that Mobil has not paid a rehabilitation bond for the Altona refinery site.
Rehabilitation bonds are common in the mining industry, where companies are required to pay a clean-up deposit or guarantee to the state, which are intended to ensure companies can't walk away when they finish mining, without covering the cost of rehabilitating the land.
The EPA told the ABC it had not taken bonds for the refinery site because it did not have permission to ask for bonds for onshore gas refineries.
Like many residents, Geoff hasn't heard how the site will be repurposed, but he thinks he knows what's most likely to come next.
Because of the site's past, the former scientist believes more heavy industry is most likely, but he doesn't agree with it.
"Those people in Ross Road [the closest residential street to the refinery] should not have to be impacted any further from that heavy industry," he says.
He wants to see any surplus land around the fuel terminal sealed with concrete or bitumen and rezoned for light industry, like mechanic workshops or warehouses, which will have less of an impact on surrounding residential areas.
While he doesn't believe it's a perfect solution, Geoff says that might be the best option his neighbourhood can hope for.
Mobil declined to speak to the ABC but emailed a statement about the Altona site.
In its statement, it explained that most of the refinery facilities had been shut down and left in a safe state.
And it said it has plans for fuel storage on the site — which will allow it to keep selling fuels like petrol and diesel to Victorians, without refining those products in Altona.
"The full conversion of Altona refinery to an import terminal is a complex task which is ongoing and there will continue to be lots of activity at the Altona site over the next few years," it said.
It described the importance of the fuel import terminal, which will receive refined fuels from Singapore, to the state's fuel security.
The company hasn't committed to pulling down any unused refinery infrastructure but did say it would review this issue.
"This may provide opportunities for repurposement, industrial or commercial sector use, aligned with the Hobsons Bay City Council local policies," the statement read.
It also made reference to the importance of maintaining buffer areas around the ongoing fuel terminal for safety reasons and the importance of the site's zoning, which is currently as a petrochemical site.
But there were plenty of questions from the ABC which were not answered in the Mobil statement — including questions about the level of contamination on site, the rehabilitation steps required to clean up the land and the likely price tag for that work.
Mobil simply said it would continue working with the EPA on compliance including "appropriate remediation of areas to reflect any potential future changes to land use".
Hobsons Bay City Council Mayor Tony Briffa believes remediation costs will impact future use of the site.
"So the level of remediation to clean up a site depends on what its future use will be," she explains.
"So if it is going to be used for residential for example, and we are not suggesting that for a moment, the remediation required is significantly greater than if it is going to be used for industrial purposes.
"So that is why it is unlikely to be used for residential purposes, it is more likely to be industrial, commercial-type applications."
The Mayor says council is keen for any available land to be used to generate jobs, saying that local area has parks and green space.
"The zoning is petrochemical so any variation from that will have to go through a rezoning process, it will involve significant community participation and even government input," she says.
Council's recently released draft industrial land management strategy prioritises protecting industrial land in the municipality, which it estimates will be depleted in the decade between 2030 and 2040.
Council sees its industrial precincts as major economic drivers, and employment zones, for the region.
But its report also acknowledges that fewer and fewer of its own residents are taking up these local industrial jobs.
Here, the number of university-educated and more highly paid residents has been growing.
Now just a quarter of Hobsons Bay residents work locally, while seven out of 10 local jobs are filled by people largely living further to the west.
 Cr Briffa also acknowledges the area's industrial legacy has left a clean-up legacy.
"I can mention a number of sites around Hobsons Bay that are not in use anymore but have not been remediated, they are just sitting there, would love to see those sites remediated and used," she says.
Bronya Lipski is a lawyer and policy advisor with Environment Victoria and also lives in Hobsons Bay.
She knows the site is in a high-growth area, where people are moving to raise families close to the bay beaches, and not too far from the city.
But the environmentalist says it is a tragedy that in the middle of a housing crisis, sites like these will likely be ruled out for residential use, because of their history of contamination.
She wants to see the EPA and Mobil be more transparent with the public about just how polluted the refinery site is.
"I think the community expects to know what kind of contaminants are in the soil, what kind of contaminants are in the surrounding area ," she says.
And she worries about the amount of sites across the western suburbs which have been left in a contaminated state — saying it's often cheaper for operators to mothball contaminated sites rather than try to resell or rezone the land, which would require it to be cleaned up.
The ABC asked the EPA what it knew about how contaminated the Altona oil refinery site is, but did not receive specific information.
The EPA said its officers inspected the site regularly and Mobil must produce annual reports of its clean-up activities.
The Victorian government said there were no planning applications for the site and any application would require a comprehensive review.
For now though, seasons at the Williamstown Soccer Club have continued on much as they always have since the refinery's closure.
On this Thursday night, the familiar thwack of boot hitting ball is heard again and again. 
Young players jump up and down on the spot to stay warm, and two little children take off, trying to dribble balls that nearly comes up to their knees.
For now they're too young to understand this debate that will help shape the future of their neighbourhood.
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