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Haberfield in a haze over WestConnex

Anti-pollution protest in Rozelle, 2017. Photo: David Watson.


UPDATE: Today, we learned that WestConnex Stage 3 was quietly approved on April 17th without any public announcement until a media release was issued by the NSW Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts this morning. The approval includes the Rozelle Interchange for which there is not even a preliminary construction plan or design. The approval also allows for a further construction site even nearer to Haberfield School. The Minister has still not answered a letter from the WestConnex Action Group asking for an investigation into high PM 2.5 levels in Haberfield. Children who began school at Haberfield School this year could now face major road works within 200 metres of their school for their entire primary schooling.

Levels of dangerous fine particulate air pollution during March this year have been higher at Haberfield Public School than at any other air quality monitoring site in the Sydney Basin.

The latest monthly report lodged by WestConnex air monitoring company Ecotech shows that Particulate Matter 2.5 μg/m3 averaged 13 μg/m3 in March. The average annual national limit for PM 2.5 is 8 u/gm3. So far this year, Haberfield Public School is averaging 10.6 u/gm3. (μg/m3 describes the number of micrograms of tiny pollution particles in a cubic metre of air. One particle is 30 times smaller than a strand of hair. )

The WestConnex monitor, which is in the grounds of the well regarded Haberfield Public School, has recorded higher levels of PM 2.5 than any of six other WestConnex air monitoring sites along the route of the M4 East tunnel, which is expected to open next year. However, two other sites, one in Ramsay Street, Haberfield and the other on Parramatta Rd at Strathfield, have both recorded10 μg/m3 for March this year and are averaging 9.5 μg/m3 since the beginning of this year. Both of these are near other schools and childcare centres.

Extensive scientific research has shown that there is no safe level of PM 2.5, which is linked to heart disease, cancer, premature birth and can impact lung and brain development.

In order to compare the WestConnex monitoring result with other sites in Sydney, we conducted a search of NSW Office of Environment and Heritage monitoring sites in the Sydney basin. This showed that the highest level for March was at Liverpool with 11.3 μg/m3, which is averaging 10.1 μg/m3 so far this year. Liverpool typically has the highest pollution levels due to the geography of the Sydney basin.

These broad statistics mask other revealing interpretations of air pollution patterns. We analysed Haberfield school Ecotech monitor data for this report. This analysis showed that levels of PM 2.5 have been above the national annual average limit of 8 μg/m3 for more than 88% of the time since mid March and that average levels during this period have been higher during school hours than over a 24 hour period. For four weeks between March 25 and April 22, the average daily PM 2.5 levels only tipped below 10 u/gm3 on one day and then only to about 9.8.

The real time data on the website that we have analysed will go through a validation process before the next monthly report is issued but the levels are unlikely to be lower due the false negative results, most of which are removed during the checking process. These sort of more nuanced and informative perspectives are not included in WestConnex Ecotech monthly reports.

These disturbing results appear to confirm the fears of members of the Haberfield community and public health experts who lodged hundreds of submissions, warning of worsening air quality if the WestConnex M4 East project was approved by NSW Planning. Haberfield school is now surrounded not only by two congested roads, Parramatta Road and Wattle Street but also by two massive WestConnex construction sites. The community now faces being only 400 metres from an unfiltered ventilation stack, 200 metres from the portal of the M4 East when it opens and even closer to construction sites for several more years if WestConnex Stage 3 is approved by the Minister for Planning. This could happen any day.

Haberfield Parents and Citizens and local residents have written to NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Education Minister Rob Stokes asking for an investigation into air quality levels and a committment that approval will not be given for Stage 3 construction sites.

Westconnex Action spokesperson Rhea Liebmann has also written to the NSW Health Planning and Environment Ministers calling for an urgent investigation into recent duststorms and high PM 2.5 levels at Haberfield. “Surely any responsible Minister or senior public servant would understand that Stage 3 WestConnex must not be approved. Instead the community must be provided with an explanation for these high levels of dangerous air pollution, which clearly place public health at risk,“ she said.

Greens Inner West Councillor Rochelle Porteous believes that all levels of government have a role to play. At Wednesday night’s Council meeting, she moved a motion to establish an urgent investigation into the health impacts of all stages of WestConnex. “We have a really important role to play in advocating for our community. There could be no more serious issue and we now have evidence from Haberfield. What we’re seeing we’ll see at other places as well. We need to do absolutely everything we can to protect the health of our children,” she told Council. Her motion was seconded by Independent Councillor Pauline Lockie who said extensive research showed that PM 2.5 was “deadly stuff” and particularly dangerous for children.

Liberal Councillor Julie Passas told the meeting that her niece who has a very high IQ level grew up on Parramatta Rd and was not affected by high lead levels. She argued that Councillors had no role in considering air quality which should be left to government experts.

Labor councillor Anna York said that she shared Rochelle Porteous’s concerns but argued that she was unsure if the work requested by Porteous had already been done and that Council should wait until it received a staff report on noise and air impacts late in May

No studies have ever been done of health impacts of WestConnex construction and the Inner West Council submission on air quality for Stage 3 WestConnex was far less in-depth than the submissions prepared by the old Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield Councils for the M4 East and New M5 stages. Those reports warned of impacts that are now being experienced.

Labor and Liberals Councillors voted together to defeat the Councillor Porteous motion by eight votes to seven. The motion was supported by 5 Greens, Pauline Lockie and Independent Councillor John Stamolis This means that Council will take no more action on pollution at Haberfield or any other suburb, at least until June.

Wendy Bacon is part of the campaign against Westconnex. This story was produced in collaboration with Luke Bacon and Henare Degan.

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