By Wendy Bacon
NSW Roads Minister Duncan Gay has been accused by St Peters residents opposed to the WestConnex motorway of using “grubby wedge politics to sell the toll road”.
Mr Gay dismissed those campaigning against the WestConnex as “lefty trendies in the inner suburbs”, speaking at a ceremony to mark the beginning of construction with Prime Minster Tony Abbott on Sunday.
His comment, which was designed to attract western Sydney votes in the March 28 state election, was bound to annoy thousands of residents across the inner west and south west who are campaigning in favour of public transport solutions rather than smoke stacks, pollution, destruction of open space and home acquisitions that are inevitably associated with the 33 kilometre WestConnex.
“My husband and I haven’t eaten or slept properly since last November, when we first learned our new home could be destroyed to make way for this dirty toll road,” St Peters resident Pauline Lockie said. After being told the WestConnex Delivery Authority (WDA) had no plans for her home when she purchased it last July, she was then told in January that it would be compulsorily acquired.
“Elderly neighbours who are so worried about losing their homes, they think it’d be better if they just didn’t wake up in the morning,” Ms Lockie said.
“So to hear Duncan Gay callously paint us as ‘lefty trendies’ to try and score votes in western Sydney is absolutely disgusting.”
WestConnex Action Group organiser Janet Dandy-Ward said “there’s something very wrong about a toll road when the only way you can sell it is by pitting hard-working families in one part of Sydney against another.”
“But we know people in western Sydney are too smart to buy into this pathetic us-versus-them garbage Gay keeps peddling,” Ms Dandy-Ward said.
“They’ll pay in tolls, they’ll pay in the time they spend sitting in traffic, and they’ll pay when the billions of dollars wasted on WestConnex isn’t spent on schools, hospitals and public transport.”
The St Peters residents’ assertion that the state government is exaggerating the benefits of the motorway to western Sydney residents is backed up by the City of Sydney’s independent study, which found the alleged improved access to the CBD from the west was overstated and “would be very limited given only around 10 percent of workers travelling to the CBD from the west and south west use a car”.
Mr Gay’s attack came just three days after Ms Lockie, Ms Dandy-Ward and other members of the WestConnex Action Group were ejected from WestConnex offices after an information evening at which more disturbing details emerged about dangerous asbestos on the site of the St Peters interchange.
The information session attended by the author featured a large screen showing massive piles of waste on the site that waste company Dial a Dump evacuated one day after it was compulsorily acquired by the WDA in December. A WDA executive told residents that the Environmental Impact Study for the St Peters part of the project would not include the clean up of the site.
After a massive quantity of asbestos was found on the site in 2011, the NSW Environmental Protection Agency issued a clean up notice. The company was given a final one-year extension in July 2014 but at the same time the WDA began secretly negotiating to buy the site. In these circumstances it was not surprising that the company did not comply with the notice, leaving the taxpayer with the massive task of cleaning up, although there will be an attempt to factor the cost into confidential negotiations that will determine how much WDA pays for the land.
The EPA told City Hub that the asbestos has been secured. At this stage the WDA has not been given the protocol for the clean up of the site but a WDA Environmental Officer said the asbestos would have to be sorted manually and that it would be a costly process. When broken down, asbestos dust fibres can be carried in the air and, if breathed in, can cause the lung disease mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer.
“We know for certain that taxpayers will now pay for the sale of the site and the clean-up separately,” Janet Dandy-Ward of WestConnex Action Group said.
“It is increasingly clear that these information sessions are simply about ticking boxes to say ‘we held community meetings’, however they repeatedly refuse to answer the questions or provide the details asked by residents.”
The action group refused to leave the site at the conclusion of the meeting, claiming that their questions had not been answered. The residents left after WestConnex called private security guards and later the police.
WestConnex is a big election issue in inner Sydney. Residents are confused about Labor’s WestConnex plan, which includes extending the M4 into Sydney’s CBD rather than into a linking tunnel across to St Peters. The Greens are opposed to WestConnex.
At a residents meeting in Annandale, Labor’s Verity Firth, who is battling to win the seat of Balmain from Greens MP Jamie Parker, was asked questions about Labor’s proposal to extend the M4 to the CBD. She said Labor would take the advice of Infrastructure NSW experts, undertake a community consultation and reveal its business case. Resident Gavin Gilchrist, who said he was disappointed that Labor’s policy still relied on roads, asked Ms Firth whether given how opposed the community is to the M4 extension, Labor might rethink its policy before the election. Ms Firth responded: “No … that is unlikely.”
NoWestConnex spokesperson Chris Eleanor told City Hub that Labor lacked an integrated transport plan and seemed “to be making this up as they go along”.
“We don’t know where [the M4 extension] is going to start. We don’t know where it’s going to finish. We don’t even know if it’s going to be a tunnel. We don’t know if there are ventilation stacks attached to it … but what we do know is that if the M4 is going through the inner west, it can’t happen without a resumption of public land or house acquisitions.”
Wendy Bacon has attended a number of WestConnex Action group events. She will speak at the City of Sydney’s public meeting on WestConnex, March 16 at 6.30pm.