By Wendy Bacon
An air quality consultant company reported to the NSW Planning Department that WestConnex M4/M5 construction would have no ‘significant effect’ on air quality at the same time as its own monitoring reports found that unusually high levels of fine particulate matter (PM) at St Peters school were likely to be caused by local construction activities. The only major construction activities happening in the area at the time were large scale WestConnex New M5 works.
The company is Pacific Environment, which has been paid more than $8 million by the Sydney Motorway Corporation to prepare air quality reports for the Environmental Impact Statements ( EIS) for all stages of WestConnex. As previously reported by City Hub, Pacific Environment was also commissioned by the Advisory Committee on Tunnel Air Quality (ACTAQ) to independently evaluate the model it was using to assess WestConnex impacts on air quality, although it was also responsible for the EIS reports.
Pacific Environment set up a monitor at St Peters School in August 2015 to gather background data on air quality for the New M5 and the M4/M5 tunnels, which join jnear St Peters Public School and local St Peters community preschool. Both schools are close to the massive St Peters Interchange and two proposed ventilation stacks.
Since major construction began in late 2016, residents have constantly complained about dust, odours and noise. Residents fear this will continue since Stage 3, which involves five more years of construction, has been approved by the Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts. NSW Planning recommended approval, despite the NSW Environmental Protection Authority expressing concern about inadequate assessment of its impacts.
The 2017 EIS monthly monitoring reports were not published on the WestConnex website until April this year, despite the Sydney Motorway Corporation that owns WestConnex, giving a written assurance to the school’s P and C representative Dr Peter Ross in 2015 that reports would be sent to the school. In 2015, the School wrote to the Department of Education reminding it of its ‘duty of care’ to provide a ‘healthy environment for students and asking for assistance for the school in dealing with the massive EIS. No assistance was offered. As far as parents know, the school never received the reports.
The reports show that between April and June last year the PM 2.5 averaged 15.3 u/gm3, which was substantially higher than recorded at any NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) monitor.The highest OEH averages for the three months were at Chullora with 9.6 u/gm3 and Liverpool with 9.5 u/gm3. The national annual limit is 8 u/gm3, which was exceeded last year at the St Peters School monitor.
In May 2017, the Pacific Environment monthly report noted that the high levels of PM 2.5 “could potentially be attributed to a significant increase in construction work in the area.” On one day, the average PM 2.5 exceeded national daily average limit, which is 25 u/gm3. Other Sydney monitors did not reflect these high levels.
For the first three months of this year, the St Peters School monitor also had the highest average levels of PM 10 u/gm3 of any monitor in Sydney, including 6 monitors along the route of the M4 East.
Extensive scientific research has shown that there are no safe levels of PM 2.5, which is associated with increased risk of lung and heart disease and is particularly dangerous for young children. Larger PM 10 is also associated with severe respiratory illnesses and is known to be contained in road construction dust.
The School Principal Mr Neil Lavitt has told parents that he was not sent the air monitoring reports. The Education Department refused to allow Mr Levitt to talk to City Hub. A department spokesman stated: As the air-monitoring facility is owned by WestConnex, please direct your enquiry to them on: email@example.com or 1800 660 248.” It takes two weeks or more to get answers from WestConnex.
St Peters Preschool Director Laurel Walker told City Hub she hadn’t received any results and hadn’t asked for them because they “have not been front of mind.” She was meeting with WestConnex on Wednesday afternoon. When asked if the Preschool had received a grant from WestConnex she declined to talk further.
City Hub spoke to Ms Walker shortly after the Premier Gladys Berejiklian, the Treasurer Dominic Perrotet and the Minister for Early Childhood Education Susan Mitchell paid the school a visit to promote the preschool subsidy for 3 year olds, which was part of the NSW Budget this week. As they left the preschool, a P and C member tried unsuccessfully to talk to them about the air quality issues but they rapidly disappeared into waiting cars.
The air monitoring results confirm the worst fears of local parent Myfanwy Waddell who had two little boys at the St Peters preschool in 2017, one of whom still attends the preschool. Ms Waddell was very concerned about the air quality at the preschool last year when the odours from the St Peters Intechange were overwhelming. “I felt that it must be dangerous and couldn’t believe it was allowed to happen” so close to a preschool, she told City Hub. ( The NSW EPA is prosecuting WestConnex’s CPB Contractors for failing to control the odour emissions in 2017.)
While Ms Waddell knows that it’s very difficult to prove any particular case is due to pollution, she can’t help wondering whether the high PM results are connected with her family’s very poor health over the last year. Her youngest child has had pneumonia twice, once in May last year and again in January this year. He has since been diagnosed with asthma. She herself has also suffered from pneumonia and conjunctivitis, her husband a very bad cough and her older child has had gastro, flu and colds over the same period.
Parents like Ms Waddell face a very tough choice when their children are settled in the preschool and the teaching is good. City Hub has talked to other residents living near the WestConnex sites who believe that construction activities near their homes is linked to respiratory illness, asthma and very severe conjunctivitis.
Westconnex Action Group spokesperson Janet Dandy Ward, who has been campaigning against WestConnex since 2014 told City Hub, “I’m amazed that the Premier would front up to St Peters today when she has refused to answer thousands of submissions and letters stating our concerns about health impacts. We all know from experience how horrific the construction impacts have been and warn other communities to ignore Sydney Motorway Corporation and NSW Roads and Maritime Services false assurances about air quality. Our community’s health should rate above the next tollway.” She called for a halt to work and an immediate investigation into the impacts of WestConnex construction on community health.
Scores more schools and child care centres will be near constructions sites if WestConnex Stage 3, the F6, the Western Harbour Tunnel and the Beaches Link go ahead. Rozelle School will only be 50 metres from a proposed construction site.
City Hub attempted unsuccessfully to speak to Pacific Environment.
Wendy Bacon is a supporter of the WestConnex Action Group and a past Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Minister for Education Rob Stokes visited the preschool. It was in fact the Minister for Early Childhood Education who was at the school.