City Hub

Westconnex asbestos blunder

By Wendy Bacon

NSW Labor, the Australian and NSW Greens and Federal asbestos authorities called last week for a halt on all Westconnex motorway work, following revelations by the ABC that asbestos is contained in road mix being used in the construction of the 34 kilometre Westconnex tollway project.

Shadow Minister for Roads Jodi McKay said that all Westconnex work should be halted in the light of claims by a former worker that road mix contaminated with asbestos is being used in its construction.

This fresh investigative report adds to many previous reports about unsafe handling of asbestos by the Sydney Motorway Corporation and its contractors that are being paid billions to build Westconnex.

Until the 1980s, asbestos was widely used in Australian construction and is frequently present in buildings being demolished.  If breathed into the lungs, asbestos fibres can cause the fatal disease mesothelioma and lung cancer.

The ABC report relied on video and information supplied by whistleblower Daniel McIntyre who was sacked by excavation company Moits after he complained about asbestos being left in road mix, some of which he said had been delivered to Westconnex project sites and other sites in Sydney.

The company Moits, which has grown from being a very small family company into one of New South Wales’ largest excavation and civil works companies, has denied the allegations. It has issued a statement saying that all its road mix is certified as asbestos free.

The Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC), which is responsible for the contraction of Westconnex, is continuing to work at full pace.

NSW Greens spokeswoman for Transport Mehreen Faruqi called on the NSW Environmental Protection Authority to carry out a thorough investigation of the claims.

“It is deeply disappointing that the Environmental Protection Authority was notified by this brave whistleblower at the excavation and demolition recycling facility and didn’t take any action. This further erodes the public’s trust in the environmental regulator.

“There needs to be an urgent investigation into all locations where this road base has gone and how widespread it is.”

A serious investigation of the claims would take some time as Westconnex work is continuing from Granville to Homebush on the old M4 and in Beverly Hills for preliminary works. In Haberfield, St Peters, Arncliffe and Kingsgrove huge construction sites are being built before tunnelling can start. Asbestos fibres could pose a life threatening risk to workers, residents and pedestrians.

Westconnex work is contracted out by the SMC to a consortia including CIMIC (previously known as Leightons) which in turn contracts out work to other companies. It will require substantial investigative resources to trace the road mix, especially because the government has established the SMC as a private company, which does not have to publish its contracts. One of the problems is that Westconnex construction and NSW Planning process has been set up in a way that offers little public accountability and plays into the hands of a large number of contractors, all of whom need to meet deadlines in order to make a profit.

The head of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, Peter Tighe, has seen the video and told the ABC that the material was almost certainly asbestos. He urged the NSW government to halt the WestConnex project so it could take samples of the road base for testing.

If the company holds an asbestos free certificate but in fact asbestos is found in the road mix, McIntyre’s claims add to concerns about the management of asbestos along the Westconnex route and the capacity of the NSW Environmental Authority to adequately respond to risks of contamination not only on the Westconnex project but across NSW.

As early as 2014, Granville residents drew NSW Planning and Westconnex’s attention to asbestos lying just outside the edge of the Westconnex project site. They have been trying to get the asbestos moved for many years. City Hub was present at a meeting last year when Westconnex and the NSW EPA claimed to know nothing about this asbestos. The ABC also reported last year on Granville residents’ concerns that asbestos found along the M4 widening site was not being properly covered or protected. Very little of this asbestos had been identified in the EIS during the planning process. City Hub visited the site and also observed the unsafe piles of waste. The claims were denied by SMC.

Premier Mike Baird was alerted to concerns about the handling and transportation of asbestos by WestConnex by Greens member for Newtown Jenny Leong in October 2015 in the NSW Parliament. City Hub has read a number of emails from Leong informing Premier Mike Baird and Roads Minister Duncan Gay about significant asbestos safety issues on WestConnex sites in St. Peters, Granville and Erskine Park where a large amount of asbestos contaminated material was dumped last year. In January 2016, Duncan Gay assured Leong’s office that all discoveries of asbestos were ‘managed in a regulated and controlled way’ and that ‘the safety of residents and workers is the number one priority for the NSW government in situations’ like these.

In May this year, City Hub also observed and reported on unsafe removal of asbestos from houses in Haberfield during very windy conditions.

This week, residents also drew City Hub’s attention to pieces of fibrous like material on construction sites along the Westconnex route at Beverly Hills where protesters were picketing against the destruction of Cooks River Ironbark critically endangered forest for a Westconnex parking lot. The possibility of this site being contaminated has been reported to the NSW EPA.

Leong is currently on maternity leave but in a newsletter issued on her behalf, she wrote that Gay’s assurances were “meaningless unless he takes action to ensure that WestConnex work sites are free from asbestos contamination.”

The Australian Greens spokesperson for transport and infrastructure Janet Rice is also pursuing the concerns at a Federal level. “The number of serious concerns raised over the past 12 months regarding asbestos handling and safety precautions on the WestConnex project should have raised red flags for Duncan Gay,” said the Australian Greens spokesperson for transport and infrastructure Senator Janet Rice.“However, Minister Gay has continuously disparaged or rebuffed claims from residents and from Jenny Leong, NSW Greens spokesperson on WestConnex, that WestConnex has been acting outside proper health and safety protocols.“The project must be stopped while all health and safety concerns around asbestos are investigated,” said Senator Rice.

Stop Press: Just on City Hub deadline, protesters have occupied a construction site at Beverly Hills to stop Westconnex bulldozers destroying critically endangered forest.