Nonetheless, Gordon Legal, the firm launched by lawyer Peter Gordon – who has led some of Australia’s biggest class actions – is representing the widow of a former student at the school, who died in 2016 from a rare form of blood cancer.
The law firm would not comment, but confirmed it was in the early stages of assembling a case involving Scott Beyer, who grew up in Ocean Grove and attended Bellarine Secondary College until 2002.
Mr Beyer, a father of two, had angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma, a rare form of the blood cancer. He was first diagnosed in 2013 and had a stem cell transplant in 2015 after the cancer returned. He died in April 2016, aged 32.
Several fellow former Bellarine Secondary College students, who were in the same age group but grew up in the neighboring town of Barwon Heads, have died of cancer in the past three years, one of Hodgkin lymphoma.
The family of Barwon Heads nurse Georgie Stephenson, who died in 2017 aged 26 after a second bout of leukaemia, have pushed for answers about what might have caused her cancer, and those of her peers. (Georgie did not attend Bellarine Secondary College).
They say they have heard of more than 20 young people in the area, many of whom attended the high school and are now in their late 20s and early 30s, who have been diagnosed with cancer, mainly blood disorders, in recent years.
In early 2017, principal Alison Murphy wrote in the school newsletter in response to concerns over stage one of the sporting complex revamp over the road.
“Some members of the Bellarine SC community have expressed concern over the earthworks taking place across from the Drysdale campus on Peninsula Drive,” Ms Murphy wrote.
“The concerns raised were around the potential chemical contamination of the soil … when the land was used for agricultural purposes and any potential health risk the dust from these earthworks might cause…”
Ms Murphy said she contacted the City of Greater Geelong, which provided a report and soil testing data conducted in November 2016 by a consulting geologist.
“The soils tested did not reveal indicators of contamination in respect to human health,” she said, quoting the report.
The samples, taken from soil stockpiles at the site, did contain some dieldrin but did not reveal indicators of contamination, according to the geologist’s report, supplied to The Age after a freedom of information request to the council.
Soil tests have been carried out at the school by WorkSafe in recent months, at the direction of the Education Department, following complaints to the school and questions from Gordon Legal.
“The health and safety of our students and staff is always our top priority,” a department spokeswoman said.
“Given the seriousness of these concerns, the department and WorkSafe both conducted soil tests in September which confirmed pesticides, including dieldrin, are below levels harmful to human health.
“Tests carried out prior to and around the time of construction of the school found that the land was suitable for school use.
“The department would like to reassure staff, students and the school community that the school is operating safely.”
The land was owned by the council before it was transferred to the Education Department to build the school, which opened in 1996. The school’s theatre is called the Potato Shed, a nod to the site’s former use.
St Thomas Catholic Primary School and St Ignatius Catholic Secondary College have since opened on the same road, and share the theatre. St Ignatius is building a new year 9 wing and gymnasium on neighboring land it bought from the council.
In 2004, 51 Victorian farmers whose properties were contaminated by dieldrin, many of them from the Bellarine Peninsula, shared in $1.75 million in state government compensation.
They had used the pesticide on the advice of the state agriculture department, even though authorities were aware of related health risks since dieldrin was banned in the US in the 1970s. It was banned in Australia in 1987 after a contamination scare involving exported beef.
Dieldrin was widely used by the region’s potato farmers to control worms and weevils. It is a form of synthetic organochlorine and can persist in the soil for decades.
“They are extremely persistent in the environment and in humans and animals. Dieldrin … was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans,” a 2016 review for the International Agency for Research on Cancer into compounds including dieldrin found.
There was limited or insufficient evidence of an association with breast cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the scientists said. However, they found “sufficient evidence” of a link between dieldrin and cancer in some animals.
In response to an independent inquiry into the EPA, the state government pledged in early 2017 to develop a statewide database of sites that pose a risk to the community due to their past use.
Bellarine MP Lisa Neville said she inquired into the matter with the ministers for education and finance (responsible for WorkSafe) and received assurances that after soil tests undertaken in recent months “there is absolutely no risk to the health of local families”.
WorkSafe tested 65 soil samples, four of which contained traces of dieldrin, but well below guidelines for human health, findings that were consistent with previous tests as far back as the 1980s, Ms Neville said.
The Major Road Projects Authority tested soil outside the schools and at 19 other sites along the bypass route for pesticides including dieldrin and found no risk to human health.
The Australian health investigation level in a residential setting for dieldrin is 6 milligrams per kilogram. In the US, the soil screening value for dieldrin in a residential setting is 0.034mg/kg.
A national program that monitors contamination of farms from organochlorines – forms of pesticide including dieldrin – observes 138 properties in the greater Geelong region, according to Agriculture Victoria.
Much of the farmland in the area has been developed in recent decades, mainly subdivided for housing.
Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority does not maintain a register of all contaminated sites, only those that are the subject of a clean-up notice or environmental audit and are considered a priority, an EPA spokesman said.
When land is rezoned from farming to residential, it is considered a more sensitive use and triggers an investigation.
Debbie Cuthbertson is a senior writer and Saturday chief of staff at The Age.