By Wendy Bacon and Luke Bacon
This story is part of our series on air pollution in Sydney. This is our second story on St Peters. Our focus is on WestConnex. Like others in the series, this story suggests that the WestConnex Environmental Impact Statement Air Quality study is not a reliable indicator of PM levels, now or in the future. This has implications for the health risks analysis which is derived from the air quality EIS. These and other studies were the basis for the Minister's approval. Unfortunately, the NSW Planning Critical State Significant Infrastructure provisions prevented any sort of appeal against the approval and there is no accountability mechanism if the predictions turn out to be wrong.
These stories also raise questions about the state of accountability and transparency in NSW. What sort of political system does not ensure that parents are given the most accurate information available about health risks to their children from a major privately controlled road building project?
WestConnex hides evidence of poor air quality in St Peters
Fresh evidence of poor air quality in St Peters has been actively hidden from parents and the community by WestConnex. This includes higher levels of fine particulate matter PM 2.5 than other parts of Sydney, apart from other WestConnex sites in Haberfield. PM 2.5 is known to be dangerous to health, especially that of small children, pregnant women, older people and those with heart and lung conditions.
WestConnex quietly turned on eight monitors along the Stage 2 route between Kingsgove and St Peters in December 2018. These monitors can be observed on the internet in real-time. Three of these monitors are in St Peters, one in Burrows Road, one on the corner of Church Street and Campbell Street and one on the grounds of St Peters school near Silver Street.
No one informed parents of children attending St Peters school that real-time information about pollution levels is now available. It has not been included in ‘local updates’ on the Westconnex website . Even members of the Air Quality Community Consultation Committee (AQCCC) were not notified that the monitors had been switched on. The AQCCC’s job is to advise WestConnex about monitoring and air quality complaints.
Many parents and residents are outraged at the ongoing secrecy around pollution at the school.
"Parents at St Peters Public School have been kept in the dark about the pollution we are living with every day. It's particularly galling to know that they've been collecting data on air quality and not sharing it with us. And when WestConnex opens, we'll have two unfiltered exhaust stacks within a few hundred metres of our school, and our community preschool," said Dr Chris Ho, a parent and social researcher at UTS.
After three months, all eight New M5 monitors are currently showing a rolling average above 8 micrograms per cubic metre or 8 µg/m3, which is the national annual average limit. The three St Peters monitors are showing an average of above 10 µg/m3. Medical research has found that there is no safe level of PM 2.5. Health risks incease as levels rise. PM 2.5 has been linked to cancer and heart and lung disease.
Highest pollution levels near childcare centre and school
Long term resident Anne Picot, who was one of many who submitted detailed concerns about air quality to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process, said "We’re sick of being treated as second class citizens when our health and safety are involved. The recent Parliamentary Inquiry reported substantial evidence of the adverse impact of vehicle pollution on our health so the government can't pretend it doesn't know. The EPA, RMS, NSW Health, the Education Department and ( NSW Premier) Berejiklian must be held to account for their callous disregard of our community's well being."
The St Peters monitor that has recorded the highest levels of PM 2.5 is near the Princes Highway on the corner of Church and Campbell Street, close to homes, apartments, a childcare centre and the school. It is currently averaging over 11 µg/m³. The location of the monitor near Silver Street, at the back of the school, was chosen to reflect the air quality in residential areas of St Peters. It is currently averaging above 10 µg/m³. The third monitor on the WestConnex St Peters interchange is also averaging more than 10 µg/m³.
Each of the St Peters monitors has also recorded PM10 average levels of above 25 µg/m3. This is the national goal for these slightly larger particles, which also have short and long term health impacts. The monitor on Burrows Road is recording an extremely high average level of 39 µg/m³ PM 10. At Campbell Street, since December, there have been 6 exceedances of the PM 10 national limit of 50 µg/m³ and at Burrows Road, 19 exceedances. The EIS predicted only rare exceedances, which would reflect regional influences such as bush fires.
NSW Planning in denial about construction impacts
The pollution levels are higher than ever anticipated in any year by the WestConnex EIS. The EIS was prepared by contractors AECOM. The high pollution levels are likely to be have been caused by surface traffic and construction. In this and other projects, NSW Planning has approved an approach that does not quantify construction impacts as it assumes they are only ‘temporary’ and can be ‘mitigated.’ These monitoring results confirm the experience of residents who have lodged hundreds of complaints and submissions about dust and health impacts. Despite this evidence, NSW Planning has never been prepared to reconsider its approach.
When asked about the high pollution results, University of New South Wales Professor and leading air quality researcher Guy Marks agreed that “the construction impacts do appear to be significant and the issue should be addressed.”
After the New M5 tunnel opens, surface traffic will dramatically increase, an unfiltered stack will open and there will be three further years of construction for the M4/M5 link. The EIS predicted that air quality will slightly worsen in most areas of St Peters after the Westconnex tunnel opens
The picture that emerges in St Peters is similar to the one recently exposed in Haberfield and Strathfield, where monitors recorded higher PM 2.5 levels than at any NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) monitor in 2018.
Recent research by Doctors for the Environment showed that rather than improving, air quality has deteriorated in Sydney generally with seven OEH monitors above the national PM 2.5 goal of 8 in 2018. Our research shows that many thousands of Sydney’s residents are exposed to pollution 25% higher than that shown on OEH monitors.
The Minister for WestConnex Stuart Ayres and before him the former Minister for Roads Duncan Gay, the RMS and the EPA have constantly assured the community that the air now and in the future will be safe. In truth, St Peters children have spent five years of their lives in an area that is significantly more polluted than other parts of Sydney.
The real-time monitoring in St Peters will continue until about 2024 according to the conditions of approval. The official purpose of the monitors is to assess how the unfiltered stacks impact on air quality but because no one in the NSW government is prepared to investigate the current poor air quality results, it will be extremely difficult to analyse what is causing pollution levels to drop or rise in future years.
Four years of WestConnex secrecy
The secrecy surrounding the issue of air quality in St Peters has continued for nearly four years. It began when Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC), now owned by Transurban which controls WestConnex, began monitoring for the Stage 2 EIS at St Peters School.
The authors of this story have analysed 38 consecutive months of St Peters School data from August 2015 to September 2018, and compared it with OEH data.
This sort of analysis could easily have been provided by WestConnex. Instead, Westconnex promised in writing in August 2015 to supply all monitoring data to parents but has never done so. SMC was also supposed to publish monthly summary reports on its website but failed to do so between June 2016 and March 2018. Only after questions were submitted to RMS, did SMC publish the monthly reports. It did not alert the parents or tell them where they could be found.
Our analysis shows that in more than 50% of months, the St Peters ‘background’ monitor was higher than any OEH monitor in the Sydney Basin. It was always in the top five of sites. In 2017, when terrible odours were plaguing St Peters, the PM 2.5 averaged more than 14 µg/m³ over three months. (More analysis will be provided in our full report that will be published soon).
Last year, City Hub asked St Peters School Dr Neil Lavitt if the school had asked for the data. He referred us to the NSW Education Department which replied: “As the air-monitoring facility is owned by WestConnex, please direct your enquiry to them.” This suggested that the Education Department is absolving itself of responsibility. In August last year, a community meeting at the famous Town and Country Hotel called on WestConnex to make all its air quality data publicly available and on the NSW Education Department to exercise its duty of care for the students at St Peters School.
The lack of information has caused tension within the school community. SMC has made many grants to schools and other organisations to garner support for the unpopular project. St Peters School did not apply for a grant but rumours circulated that SMC was paying the school some money. In response to questions from Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, WestConnex told the Parliamentary Committee into Impacts of WestConnex that a ‘funding contribution’ was being negotiated between WestConnex and the Education Department. The money will be used to upgrade a playground. Parents who have spoken to City Hub believe that they should have been consulted and fully informed about this agreement before it was signed.
In her submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry, parent Ngaire Warboys expressed concern about this payment and asked why parents were not consulted about the terms of the transfer. If money was being paid to compensate the school, she wanted to know on what terms it was negotiated. She also wrote that she had been discouraged by another parent from taking her concerns about conditions at the school to the media.
Warboys partner, Dr Ross wrote in his submission: “This is occurring in a climate of secrecy. It ignores the fact that the Environmental Impact Statement of WestConnex …clearly indicates that, following completion of the project, air quality at SPPS will be worse than before the project commenced. Should the NSW Department of Education be encouraging children to spend more time in the open air at St Peters when the WestConnex EIS clearly states that the risk to health will be greater when the project is completed? Is the Department of Education in breach of its duty of care for school children? Is the Department so hungry for money that it will take funds from the very organization responsible for increased health risks for school children?”
Recent air monitoring results at St Peters and Haberfield Schools confirm fears of Rozelle residents , where massive construction sites and unfiltered stacks will spring up if WestConnex Stage 3 progresses. These reports provide strong evidence that WestConnex assurances and RMS air quality experts cannot be relied upon.
So far, the NSW EPA, NSW Planning and RMS have all declined to accept any responsibility for investigating or improving the quality of the air around WestConnex sites. Last year, the WestConnex Action Group sought assistance from NSW Health for a local health study after residents reported worsening asthma and other conditions to the Parliamentary Inquiry into WestConnex. They were told local health studies are not an option preferred by NSW Health.
Where do the parties stand on WestConnex?
Labor Councillors vote against action on air quality
The Inner West Council has written letters to the NSW government expressing concern about poor air quality associated with WestConnex. But recently, they have been slow to act in response to reports about high levels of pollution at Haberfield School. As City Hub reported In February this year, Greens Councillor Rochelle Porteous moved a motion to write to the Premier Gladys Berejiklian, the Leader of Labor Opposition Michael Daley and to seek a meeting with the NSW EPA. Labor Mayor Darcy Byrne argued against these actions and bee the rest of the Labor and Liberal Councillors voted with him against the motion. Five Greens and two independents Councillors Pauline Lockie and John Stamolis supported the motion but it was narrowly lost. ( Wendy Bacon, one of the authors of this story spoke in favour of the motion.)
St Peters is in the seat of Heffron. Yesterday, City Hub ask MP Ron Hoenig to send us information about any steps he had taken to address the air quality issue in St Peters. So far we have received no reply.
From 2013 onwards, Labor has supported WestConnex although they are critical of its impacts and management. In the final stages of the Parliamentary Inquiry into WestConnex, Labor MPs voted to continue with WestConnex Stage 3 which involves building a tunnel under thousands of homes in the Inner West and the massive Rozelle Interchange and five more years construction for St Peters and Haberfield. Only the Greens dissented. Along with the LNP, NSW Labor has not committed to filtering the stacks.
The Greens have continually campaigned against WestConnex and are continuing to oppose the Stage 3 tunnel that will increase pollution at a number of schools and child care centres. They have promised to push for monitoring at all schools near 'hot spots' and to filtering of all stacks.
City of Sydney Mayor Clover Moore called this week for the EPA to undertake more monitoring in inner Sydney.
You can view the New M5 Real Time site here and the M4 East monitors here.
Wendy Bacon is a former Professor of Journalism at UTS. She agrees with the Greens policy on WestConnex and is supporting them in the NSW election. Luke Bacon is an open data journalist and reearcher. Henare Degan also contributed research to this article.