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NSW air quality regulator lacks capacity to review Westconnex pollution risk

BY WENDY BACON

The most dangerous place to be if you are worried about the health impacts of traffic pollution is close to busy roads. This is why parents of children attending schools near planned Westconnex tollway portals and others, living or working near roads predicted to become more congested, are dismayed by the NSW Government’s refusal to agree to tighter national air quality standards this week.

The NSW Environmental Protection Authority recommended to NSW cabinet that NSW not support a tightening of standards for PM 10 to 20 or 15 as recommended by Victoria and the ACT. This week, NSW Minister for Environment Mark Speakman persuaded a national meeting of Environment Ministers to keep the National standard at 25, leaving other states to apply their own safer standards.

PM 10 is a form of fine particulate pollution found in car exhaust and coal dust that is associated with lung cancer in non-smokers and restricted lung growth in children. The standard of 25 does not meet the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Westconnex toll road air quality studies have already found that sites at congested points along the Westconnex route are already near to the 25 limit without the extra traffic that will be produced near outlets of the M4 East and New M5 in Homebush, Concord, Haberfield, St Peters, Alexandria, Newtown and Kingsgrove.

Member for Newtown and Greens spokesperson for WestConnex Jenny Leong MP said, “We don’t have to look far to see why the NSW Government is so opposed to meeting the recommended levels for PM10 pollution given that the polluting WestConnex tollway, one of the state’s most significant infrastructure projects, won’t meet those recommendations.”

“The WestConnex M4 East EIS clearly states that the predicted emissions of PM10 along the route will reach levels that exceed the WHO guidelines.”

While the EIS studies for both the M4 East and New M5 find that only a few areas will exceed current NSW pollution limits, these results are entirely dependent on traffic predictions that have been heavily criticised by independent experts, including SGS Economics and Planning consultants for the City of Sydney which opposes Westconnex on both traffic congestion and air pollution grounds. Last week the City of Sydney Mayor Clover Moore distributed a pamphlet calling for action to all city residents near the planned M5 route.

Now the NSW EPA has admitted that it does not even have the capacity to review air quality data submitted to the NSW Department of Planning by private companies working on the Sydney Motorway Corporation’s Westconnex tollway project.

The NSW EPA acknowledged this weakness in its response to the M4 East EIS that it does not even have the technical expertise to “meaningfully review” air quality studies for the M4 East and New M5 air quality studies.

The Westconnex air quality studies have been done by Pacific Environment Services, which was paid $2 million for the air quality studies for the M4 East and New M5 tollways, neither of which have yet been approved. If the New M5 goes ahead, it has been promised another $4.5 million up to 2019. Future contracts are unlikely to be publicly revealed now that Westconnex has been handed to the Sydney Motorway Corporation which operates outside the NSW laws that require tenders to be published. This is the biggest contract in the history of the company, which describes itself as a ‘strategic partner’ of Westconnex.

At a public exhibition of the New M5 EIS on Saturday, Pacific Environment Services staff confirmed that the NSW EPA does not have the capacity to use their air quality assessment model, which has not previously been used on an Australian project.

The EPA’s admission leaves NSW without an effective air quality regulator of the largest transport infrastructure project ever constructed in Australia. Costs of the project currently estimated at $16.8 billion are escalating by $2 billion a year. Health costs of congested roads also cost billions in Sydney alone.

Westconnex has now submitted its M4 East Response to Submissions report to the Department of Planning which means the Minister could approve the project early in 2016. Residents are lodging further complaints and submissions. The M5 EIS was lodged in early December and the Department of Planning has so far refused to extend the deadline for submissions past January 29 which means that Parents and Citizens Associations along the route are concerned that because schools close down this week until the end of January, they have been excluded from the consultation process.

Primary school children at McCallums Hill Public School protested against the New M5 after school on Monday this week, expressing their concerns that the school is near an unfiltered ventilation stack and that hundreds of extra diesel trucks would pass each day during the construction period if the project is approved.

“Around 80 per cent of fine particle emissions come from vehicles running on diesel and figures in the latest WestConnex New M5 EIS indicate unacceptable increases in truck movements for years during the construction of WestConnex. There will be over 1000 heavy truck movements per day – causing a massive increase in both dangerous particles PM 10 and PM 2.5,” said Greens MP Leong.

Even without the massive volume of extra traffic that will be delivered onto its doorstep by planned New M5 tollway, St Peters Public School is already near to the safe limit of PM 10 on some days.

St Peters Primary School Parents and Community group wrote to the Ministry for Health this week calling for urgent advice and assistance in responding to the M5 EIS and asking for an extension. The P & C wrote, “It is unsatisfactory for parents, citizens and the school’s teaching principal to analyse complex data related to noise, air and dust pollutants and to make an accurate submission to represent the community’s concerns for young children’s health within the allocated time period which ends before holidays resume….We are also concerned about the impacts of noise and the possibility that our children may not be able to safely participate in outdoor education and activities.”

James Whelan, spokesperson for Environmental Justice, a national organisation who campaigned for better standards told City Hub, “Sydney communities missed out on stricter air pollution standards and healthier air ….Adopting the strictest standards proposed would have provided the NSW Government with a strong case to tighten motor vehicle emission standards and to do everything possible to encourage public transport, cycling and walking rather than more traffic and motorways.”  You can read his submission to the M4 East here.

Wendy Bacon is an editor of the People’s M4 East and New M5 EIS sites which is publishing submissions from independent experts and community organisations. 

 

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