City Hub

Toxic terminal: Proposed construction at White Bay threatens local livelihoods

Jamie Parker, member for Balmain, overlooks the construction site at White Bay. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna

By RIDA BABAR and ALLISON HORE

Imminent plans to undergo construction at the White Bay residential site, near Rozelle and Balmain, will have an immense impact on the community.

Long-suffering residents in the area who have already dealt with WestConnex construction will have more noise pollution to contend with. But not only that, leaked government documents reveal contaminated sediment unearthed during the construction will find a “temporary home” at White Bay, putting residents at risk of exposure to harsh toxins.

This aim of the project, touched on in the leaked documents, is to build huge 6.5-kilometre tunnels for the Western Harbour and Beaches Link between Rozelle and North Sydney. The NSW Government said the “much needed tunnels” provide a “missing link” in the city’s motorways and would be a “game changer” for Sydney, providing more direct bus routes between the Inner West, Sydney and North Sydney.

Rather than a traditional tunnelling process like the one used to dig the tunnels for Sydney’s metro system, the construction process for the new harbour tunnels would involve a large trench being dug into the harbour and prefabricated concrete tubes being lowered into position from barges above.

Toxic sediment unearthed

While much of the sludge dredged up in this process will be dumped at sea, the project’s environmental impact report suggests around 142,500 cubic centimeters of contaminated sediment from the top layer of seabed would have to be moved on shore for treatment before being put in landfill.

Chemicals found on the harbour seabed, including furans, dioxins and PCBs are part of what the World Health Organisation calls the “dirty dozen”. Dioxins, the WHO says, are toxic to liver and kidney function and can cause cancer. Heavy metals including lead, mercury and cadmium are also present in the harbour sediment.

The proposed area for the contaminated sediment to be handled and dumped in White Bay is less than 100 meters from residents’ homes, putting them at risk of exposure to odour and volatile emissions. Jamie Parker, Member for Balmain, has condemned this plan, saying it essentially creates a “massive toxic waste dump in the middle of a densely populated residential suburb”.

He told City Hub the government’s approach towards the scheme, in terms of community impact, was short-sighted.

“The cumulative impact on residents is enormous with WestConnex surface works underway, Sydney Metro site establishment to begin soon, followed by work on the Western Harbour Tunnel,” he said.

“The government has absolutely no plan to deal with the cumulative impacts of all these projects.”

In a statement to the Sydney Morning Herald in April, a strata committee representing about 2000 apartment owners and residents near the proposed dumping site in White Bay lamented over the plan which they say is a “betrayal” by the NSW government.

“Our owners purchased their apartments in good faith … with no warning from the NSW government that such adverse impacts could be imposed. The proposals represent a blatant betrayal,” the statement said.

The Inner West council also expressed concerns over the seabed sediment handling site, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “there is always a chance of an unforeseen spill or other pollution event, and this could take some time to rectify”.

Noisy neighbours

Construction noise from the project is also set to have a detrimental effect on the community. The NSW Government’s environmental impact statement says there is expected to be around 700 heavy vehicle movements and 530 light vehicle movements per day during peak construction- in this case, the process of treating and moving materials for tunnelling work.

These vehicle movements, as well as the noise on site will make living in the area “unbearable”, says Mr. Parker. He says the government’s plan to buy out some properties in the area shows they understand the impact the project will have on residents.

“The noise will be so bad, it’s set to make some parts of the local area completely unliveable,” he said.

“The government acknowledges the impact will be so intolerable that residents may be forced out.”

Mr. Parker says he plans to take a delegation of local residents and strata committees to see the Minister for Roads so she can “hear firsthand what a devastating impact this plan is going to have on our community.”

“The Western Harbour Tunnel is just a desperate attempt to funnel more traffic and revenue into the failing WestConnex project. Residents in the Inner West don’t want spaghetti junctions and toll ways. They want clean, green and affordable public transport services,” he said.

Touching on the impact the construction will have on residents the NSW Government said the White Bay site is “key” in reducing the number of trucks passing through residential streets. They also reassured residents construction on the project would take place during “standard construction hours”.

Tunnel “won’t solve congestion”

The NSW Government said with the city’s population expected to grow from 5 million to 8 million over the next 40 years, easing congestion on some of the city’s busiest roads is a priority. The tunnels, the government claim, will ease congestion on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Warringah Freeway and Eastern Distributor which have all been identified as among Australia’s most busy roads.

But Mr. Parker doesn’t agree that the tunnels will solve congestion issues in the Inner West.

“Our community will have to deal with the impacts of this project for years to come but won’t see any real benefit from it because the Western Harbour Tunnel won’t solve Sydney’s congestion problem,” Mr. Parker added.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that the government and the Labor opposition remain wedded to these mega projects that are locking our city into an expensive and polluting future of private car dependence.”

Mr. Parker has issued multiple statements calling for action to stop these plans and rescue the livelihood of residents amongst an already difficult year with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said by utilising traditional tunneling methods, rather than the trench process the government could avoid some of the community’s concerns regarding noise and sediment.

“We’re calling for the government to abandon dredging of the harbour between the Balmain peninsula and Waverton all together,” he said.

“This connection could be built with conventional tunnelling methods which would reduce noise and pollution at White Bay and avoid the environmental damage that will come from disturbing hundreds of years of toxic pollution on the harbour floor.”

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