Inner West Independent

NSW Chief Scientist Writes to City Hub

Photo by David Watson

Letter from Mary O’Kane, 
NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer

I was concerned to read your article WestConnflicts of Interest, dated 24 January 2018, suggesting that the Advisory Committee on Tunnel Air Quality (ACTAQ) did not deal with conflicts of interest in commissioning the ‘Optimisation of the application of GRAL in the Australian context’ study and report.
The ACTAQ takes its role (“to provide advice to the NSW Government based on national and international practice and experience with motorway tunnels…”) very seriously, and is careful in its management of conflicts. The full terms of reference for ACTAQ are available on the Chief Scientist & Engineer website

The GRAL suite of software is an advanced package of freely available meteorological and air quality dispersion modelling software, which has been used in Australia for the first time for a project of its type by the WestConnex proponents’ air quality consultants, and used in the WestConnex Environmental Impact Statements (EISs).
During the assessment of the WestConnex M4 East and New M5 EISs, the ACTAQ report, requested by the Department of Planning on the two EISs had raised issues about the evaluation of the GRAL model in the EISs. The NSW Health comments on these EISs had also raised the question of the lack of validation of GRAL in the Australian context. (See Department of Planning website

While these EIS reports were responded to by the proponent, ACTAQ believed that more information was needed about the use of GRAL in Australian situations, given that it had never been used for projects of this nature in Australia before.
Therefore, ACTAQ decided to commission a study that looked further at the GRAL model — how it compared with other models, how it compared with measured data, and what configurations should be used in the Australian context. Furthermore, ACTAQ wanted to make this study available with open data and in line with open government principles by getting information out and into the public domain, which aids transparency and in itself aids reducing conflict of interest. The goal was to have a report developed with clear recommendations about configuration and the application of GRAL to complex urban road networks in Australia.

ACTAQ decided that using Pacific Environment was the best course of action, even though they had been the consultancy that developed the EISs. They were the only consultancy that had extensive experience with the GRAL model on projects of this kind in Australasia, and would have considerable level of knowledge that could be imparted more widely. ACTAQ agreed that any potential or perceived conflicts of interest could be managed through appropriate governance measures that would also ensure a high quality study.

These measures included:
*Appointing a steering group to provide guidance and oversight including 
independent experts such as Dr Mark Hibberd from CSIRO and Dr Ian Longley from NIWA in New Zealand who had been an author of ACTAQ’s EIS submissions that made comments on the GRAL evaluation.

*Engagement of a technical peer reviewer with expertise in air pollution statistics, whose review is available on the Chief Scientist & Engineer’s website.
*Making the final report and all data collected as part of the study available on the Chief Scientist & Engineer’s website, with data able to be analysed by others.

What we have now is a study that, while paying careful attention to managing conflict of interest, enabled a significant level of knowledge transfer from Pacific Environment to open disclosure. The GRAL study provides considerable shared learnings now available through the report, and potential upskilling of the broader community on configuring the model. This includes information and raw data that other consultancies now have available should they choose to use the GRAL model, and wish to configure it for Australian conditions.

It is important also to note that this GRAL study report has not been used for direct decision making but does provide an important input into model development for those tunnels and road networks using GRAL.

The systems we have set up for the ACTAQ are working well, with processes facilitating independent experts from around the world reviewing material, providing advice and then this advice being responded to or acted on to improve air quality assessments for NSW tunnels further. However, we are always looking at new ways to enhance and refine our processes.

Questions about air quality of course are always welcome as we work to provide good advice to government, and people becoming deeply informed about these issues is encouraged. We suggest that those wishing to learn more visit the websites to find the relevant reports.

Yours sincerely
Mary O’Kane, 
NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer
Response to Chief Scientist by Wendy Bacon and Chris Nash (authors of the article)

There are two issues relevant to conflict of interest issues raised in our story.

The first issue is that the Advisory Committee on Tunnel Air Quality (ACTAQ) is managed and resourced out of the RMS which is the proponent and major promoter of the controversial WestConnex tunnels. While the four person Committee is chaired by Chief Scientist Professor Mary O’Kane, it includes the RMS CEO Ken Kanofski. Surprisingly the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has only observer status. The RMS’s influence, which is a matter of public interest, has not been made transparent either on the Chief Scientist’s website or on the RMS website and is not well understood in the community.

Professor McKane and Dr Ian Longley, an expert member of the Committee who is based in NZ, both agree that the choice of Pacific Environment (PE), a company that has ongoing commercial interests in using the GRAL model for Westconnex, does raise perceptions of a conflict of interest. Nevertheless ACTAQ chose PE as the best company to do the research. Our story acknowledged that the Committee’s governance arrangements to manage the conflict of interests included a research steering committee, the use of an international expert to review the study and the publication of the results. However, while Professor McKane mentions two of the people on the steering committee she does not mention that three of its eight members are RMS staff, one of whom has actively promoted the safety of air quality impacts at various EIS information sessions run by the Sydney Motorway Corporation before the research or its steering committee was convened.

In her response Professor McKane suggests that NSW EPA and NSW Health concerns about the lack of validation of the model in Australian conditions partly drove the decision to do a study to further illuminate the model’s use in Australian conditions. It remains a matter of concern that a model was used for the approval of WestConnex Stage One M4 East and Stage Two M5 East that had never been used in Australia before and for which the NSW EPA was not equipped to thoroughly evaluate the results.