Dangerous pollution at St Peters School—why didn't anyone tell the parents?
By Wendy Bacon,
By Wendy Bacon, Luke Bacon and Henare Degan
An air quality monitor at St Peters public school in Sydney's Inner West has recorded the highest average levels of PM 10 of any Sydney monitoring site during the first three months of this year.
The monitor also recorded the highest average level PM 2.5 levels from January to December 2017 with a level of 9.6 u/gm3, which was slightly above Chullora in Western Sydney and well above any other site monitored by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage in 2017. The national annual limit is 8 u/gm3. Between April and June 2017, the average PM 2.5 levels were above any others in Sydney.
However, although the St Peters community has constantly complained about the impact of dust and odours on their health, they have been kept in the dark. WestConnex commissioned the reports as part of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS), the NSW Environment Protection Authority, the NSW Planning Department and the NSW Health Department should have been able to easily access the data. But if they have, none of them have ever passed them onto the community, even when specific public health concerns have been raised.
Asked to confirm that he had not been able to obtain the results, the St Peters School principal Neil Lavitt followed Department protocol by referring me to the Education Department media unit. The NSW Education Department refused to state whether or not it was aware of the results, simply stating:
As the air-monitoring facility is owned by WestConnex, please direct your enquiry to them on:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 1800 660 248
When we asked why the ownership of the monitor prevented the Education Department from answering the questions, the spokesman was adamant that nothing more would be said.
The air quality monitor was installed by Westconnex consultants Pacific Environment at St Peters school in July 2015. (Last year, multinational Pacific Environment was taken over by an even bigger global consultancy ERM).
The monitor's original purpose was to record air quality data for the WestConnex Stage 2 New M5 EIS. It was also used for the Stage 3 M4/M5 EIS. It's situated on the far south-west corner of the spacious St Peters Public School grounds. Nearly three years later, school parents have not even been able to find out if the monitor is still operating.
Back in early 2015, when the WestConnex Delivery Authority ( later turned into the private corporation Sydney Motorway Corporation) wanted to install the monitor, the school community was very concerned about the health impacts of WestConnex. In March 2015, the P & C sent a list of questions to WestConnex community engagement manager. Louise Bonny. Some of these focused on how the school community could obtain the data recorded by the monitor. Ms Bonny replied:
WDA intends to make the calibrated data recorded by the air quality monitoring station publicly available....The calibrated data can be sent to St Peters Public School for distribution to parents and interested stakeholders.
She promised that WestConnex would work with air quality specialists to prepare a suitable format for presenting the data to the public.
The School P and C were not satisfied with the answers so it wrote a further letter. P & C Committee member Peter Ross wrote:
As you can imagine, we are very concerned about the impact of the proposed project on the health, safety and well being of our children, staff, parents and citizens, and others who use the School’s facilities. We are aware that high concentrations of nitrous dioxide and other noxious gases released from tunnels, as well as the release of particular matter including ultrafine particulates, which possess significant toxicity, have been linked to a range of health problems including asthma, cancer, allergies (especially in children), eczema, hay fever, and strokes in adults.
He asked, "Does “intends” mean “will”? At what intervals will the data be made available?
In July, WestConnex's Louise Bonny responded:
Yes, WestConnex Delivery Authority will make the calibrated data recorded by the air quality
monitoring stations publicly available. This data will be made available on a monthly basis....WDA will send the calibrated data to the school and to the P&C.
The parents also expressed great concern that there would be no monitoring of asbestos, given the amount that was to be removed from the landfill and in buildings that were to be demolished. Later parents were appalled to discover that the asbestos was being removed before the project had been approved and without any monitoring at the School.
The St Peters parents that we have spoken to believe that the results were never sent through and the school principal also does not have them.
Now three years later, this report confirms what many residents feared was the truth. Those living near the monitor and students who play on the oval will have been exposed on occasions to dangerous levels of pollution. Even more worrying, Westconnex told the school that they were placing the monitor well away from the major roads. The school buildings and a nearby preschool are much nearer to the WestConnex construction sites and major roads. For months, construction work using heavy diesel equipment has taken place within metres of homes in St Peters, including over 24 hour periods. It is highly likely that levels nearer the roads works have been higher than those near the air monitor.
As we reported in our first story, PM10 and PM2.5 include particles, which when breathed in are small enough to penetrate the chest and upper back region of the respiratory system. The negative health effects of PM are well documented and occur over both short-term ( hours and days) and long-term (months, years). PM can aggravate asthma and respiratory symptoms. Finer PM 2.5 particles and ultrafine particles ( which are not monitored) are more clearly associated with higher risk of death from heart disease and lung cancer. People who are already ill or elderly and very young children are particularly vulnerable. There is no known safe level of exposure.
Where can you find the St Peters monitoring reports?
If you have the time, you can find some early New M5 St Peters reports by using a basic web search. Today if you search 'WestConnex and Air quality' you will find this page. Most of the material at the top of the page is promotional and makes optimistic assertions, that have been contested by independent experts. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you will find the EIS Air quality monthly reports. The St Peters data is inside the New M5 and M4/M5 monthly PDF reports. An internet archive search shows that the reports have not been published monthly and that most of the 2017 reports weren't published on the page until March this year.
The monitoring reports are not secret but nor are they accessible to the community as promised by WestConnex. They do not include detailed information, like tables with daily pollution levels, although these would be simple to compile with WestConnex’s complete data.
Once you open all the monthly PDFs, you can search through them and compile all the data to see monthly results in context. The community should not be be forced to track this data down and do this time-consuming analysis themselves.
There are also obvious errors in some of the reports, for example a table that shows different results that the corresponding chart for the period.
We've been through the reports. Here's a summary of what we found.
PM 10 monthly averages peaked earlier this year
The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage monitors particulate matter at a range of sites across Sydney.
For this chart, we selected the top five PM 10 results for OEH monitoring from January to March this year and compared them with the WestConnex St Peters results. As you can see the levels at St Peter are substantially higher than others.