Welcome to Vandergraaff Soils Horizons

‘Things that can be counted do not necessarily count.
Things that count cannot necessarily be counted.’ (Einstein)

Van de Graaff & Associates offer a variety of services to both private clients and government organisations including:

Engineering soil depth and quality
Wastewater Management
Soil and Groundwater Contamination & Risk Assessments
Urban Horticulture
Asset Management
Mine Tailings Rehabilitation
Aboriginal Heritage
Teaching at University and Primary School Level
Pro Bono Consultancies and Professional Society Inputs

Engineering soil quality and soil depth applicable to land development

Understanding the link between geology and soils through a geomorphological analysis can save wrong decisions in land development. Geomorphology is a powerful science that can elucidate where soils are deep and cheap to excavate for trenching, where they may be full of floaters or are saline. We have done work with Geocode Mapping & Analysis for South East Water Limited in areas to be sewered providing the GIS basis for the mapping. A very large area of future residential land near Melton was mapped and assessed in terms of future development limitations for Cardno Lane Piper.

Wastewater Management and Re-use for Irrigation (including Land Capability Assessments-LCAs)

Van de Graaff & Associates offer an in-depth analysis of the chemistry of the wastewater, including pumped leachate from a land fill, how it may affect the soil and of the suitability of land for sustainable wastewater disposal for any size of land. Salinity and sodicity of the wastewater can affect the soil badly and any sound irrigation scheme must be designed to overcome this. Previous clients include Eynesbury Estate, VicUrban (various developments), EPA, Western Water, Yarra Valley Water, Coomes Consultants (now CPG P/L), ERM and private clients too numerous to mention.

Robert van de Graaff is a member of the DSE Panel assessing the requests for funding under the Small Town Water Quality Fund program.

Soil and Groundwater Contamination & Risk Assessments

Soil contamination is of major concern to the community at large, including developers and land users. We provide expert soil and groundwater contamination and risk-based assessments and advice for numerous environmental consultancies and private clients, however we do not offer site clean-ups or environmental audits. Our work is limited to advising environmental assessors and accredited environmental auditors with advice based on soil chemistry, mineralogy and geochemistry. Numerous times we discovered that elevated concentrations of heavy metals, fluoride or boron are indigenous to the site, immobile and harmless and should not constrain land use. This research is often fascinating detective work.

Under the EPA Environmental Auditor Guidelines (Publication 953.2 – 2007) Robert van de Graaff is the chosen provider of Expertise in Soil Science to accredited environmental auditors in 21 Australian environmental firms.

Urban Horticulture

We continue to provide soil testing and assessments for various purposes such as compaction assessments, soil testing for assessing suitability for horticultural purposes and soil improvement for parks and gardens. Advice on soil quality and improvement was supplied to the Edgewater Estate and the Valley Lake Estate, for example. We have assessed the impact of large public events such as Moomba and the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show on the soils in grassed areas where thousands of people will be walking and vehicles will be driven.

Aboriginal Heritage

Areas in the Pakenham Growth Corridor were also mapped for their prehistoric Aboriginal heritage values under contracts with Heritage Insight P/L. Former springs and soaks were located which led to camp sites rich in Aboriginal artefacts. A prior stream was discovered on an ancient alluvial fan which resulted in finding a treasure trove of artefacts. Geomorphological analysis of the land proved to be the key to success. Similarly, geomorphology and soil science can also identify land with a minimal likelihood of containing prehistoric Aboriginal habitation and artefacts.

Asset Management

In collaboration with our associates, Geocode Mapping and Analysis P/L we offer a GIS based approach to risk-assessment for in-ground assets through soil and terrain pattern mapping. From west to east and north to south the subsoils of Greater Melbourne show gradients of salinity and pH, chemical properties that affect corrosion of cast iron pipes. Previous clients include City West Water, and S.E Water.

Catchment Management

The Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority contracted us, again in cooperation with Geocode, to develop a soil health management plan for the entire CMA area. Several ideas taken up in this plan were based on experiences of successful and originally thinking landholders.  

Mine Tailings Rehabilitation

In collaboration with a Chinese organization and an Australian Joint Venture, including Woodward Clyde Pty Ltd and ACIL Australia Pty Ltd, under an AusAID-funded project (1993-1997), we succeeded in converting large areas of copper mine tailings into productive and safe agricultural soil at Yuanqu, Shanxi, and in establishing vigorous grass and trees at Tong Ling, Anhui. The project was awarded a special prize by the Chinese Government in 1999 on occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Republic. In 2001, Robert's Chinese colleagues arranged for him to be included in a group of world famous scientists to a reception by the Vice Premier, Wen Jiabao. In the group photo Robert can be seen in the back row.

Teaching at University and Primary School Level

For the last twenty years, Robert van de Graaff (Principal) has been teaching the first-year landscape architecture students at RMIT a basic course on terrain. The course includes geology, natural rock materials, landforms and geomorphology, and soils, all at very basic levels. The course comes to life as many of the case studies discussed in class come from Robert's professional experience. Students learn the importance of soils from Robert's discussion of costly mistakes made by others in the past who failed to take soils seriously. Some students called him the teacher who asks more questions of the students than tells them what's what. Socrates found this technique extremely efficient in making a person investigate his own beliefs, but in the end it cost him his life! At age 80 this is not a worry for Robert. RMIT recognised his 80th birthday with a special thankyou morning tea for two decades of inspirational teaching.

Robert also enjoys talking to kindergarten and primary school kids about soils, compost and growing plants and vegetables. Here too, Socrates is a great help.

In 2012, at the invitation of Sydney University's Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Robert joined the "National Learning and Teaching in Soil Science Workshop" as a so-called 'industry' representative. He argued for a broader curriculum that included geomorphology and other earth and environmental sciences where at present the perspective of soil science is largely on crop production.

Since 2011, Robert also is part of the CSIRO Scientists-In-Schools (SIS) program and he now has a police "Working With Children Check". He helped the Rolling Hills PS, Croydon, with their school vegie garden and the Mt Evelyn Christian College with a field excursion to the Yarra Valley. Unfortunately, many teachers seem to be too busy to make use of the CSIRO program.

Pro Bono Consultancies and Society Inputs

Robert believes that the Hippocratic Oath, which medical doctors have traditionally honoured for more than 20 centuries by not sending away a patient without treatment if he/she is unable to pay for the service, also applies to environmental experts. Van de Graaff & Associates have on occasion offered their professional services to people without charge or at a very reduced rate.

He and his associate at the time, Helena Woolums, assisted the West Footscray Primary School with free advice on restoring a school vegetable garden and school orchard. Free help and a free 0.5 m3 load of mushroom compost were supplied to the Holy Eucharist School in Malvern East to get its vegie garden off to a good start. Both also provided free services to the South Melbourne Commons where the Friends of the Earth and Father Bob McGuire were setting up a vegetable garden.

In past years and again at present, Robert's participation in the work of Standards Australia and some other more minor activities, such as Whistle Blowers Australia, and his recent work with the Victorian EPA has been at his own cost and in the service of Soil Science in general, and of the Australian Society of Soil Science Inc. in particular.