By Wendy Bacon, Luke Bacon and Henare Degan.
Update: This story was first published in City Hub on April 25. Two days later, we learned that WestConnex Stage 3 had been quietly approved on April 17th without any public announcement. No announcement was made until the NSW Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts issued a media release on the 27th. The approval includes the Rozelle Interchange for which there is not even a preliminary construction plan or design.
A huge problem with the approved EIS is that it doesn't have any detailed design or even a definite route or plan for construction sites. In Haberfield for example, there's Option An and Option B construction sites. Option B allows for Stage 3 construction sites even closer to Haberfield Public School. In some hope for the school community and nearby residents, the approval favors a different option 'Option A' in Haberfield. It states that if the 'Option B' sites are used for major construction, another environmental assessment must be done. Unfortunately, the assessment excludes impacts on air quality. Even if construction sites are ruled out, the sites could still be used for major car parks creating even more congestion near the school.
Haberfield School had highest levels of PM 2.5 in March
Levels of dangerous fine particulate air pollution during March this year were 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, is about 200 metres from Parramatta Road and behind many trees on the old Yasmar Juvenile Detention Centre site. It is not near a road. Despite this, the monitor 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.
This is very worrying for residents and for those who work in the area because the pollution is likely to be worse nearer Parramatta Road where the traffic is congested and WestConnex has been building the portal to the M4 East tunnel. Many residents live right next to the construction site and there is a child care centre on Parramatta Rd near the site.
Two other WestConnex monitoring sites, one in Ramsay Street, Haberfield and the other on Parramatta Rd at Strathfield, have both recorded 10 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. These levels are also well above the national annual limit of 8 μg/m3.
Overall, the results suggest that there is a more serious air pollution problem in the Inner West than previously acknowledged. The EIS for the M4 East assumed a background level of 8μg/m3 before the introduction of the motorway. The EIS made no quantitative allowance for construction, which was treated as a temporary impact. In fact, it continues for years.
While it is true that the pollution patterns reflect regional influences, this does not explain the differences in levels recorded at different Ecotech WestConnex monitors or why the Haberfield School monitor persistently recorded levels higher than other monitors in February and March.
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.
Comparing Haberfield School with other Sydney air monitoring sites
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 so it was surprising that Haberfield was higher in March with 13 μg/m3.
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.
These sort of more nuanced and informative perspectives are not included in WestConnex Ecotech monthly reports.
The real-time data on the website that we've analysed will go through a validation process before the next monthly report is issued but the levels are unlikely to be lower due to the false negative results, most of which are removed during the checking process.
The disturbingly high PM2.5 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. When the tunnel opens next year, the school will be 400 metres from an unfiltered ventilation stack and 200 metres from the portal of the tunnel.
During the M4 East approval process, residents were promised that there would be no above ground construction during Stage 3. But when the EIS for Stage 3 was published last year, it included two options for above ground construction sites in Haberfield. "Option B" included using two old caryard sites, less than 200m from the school gate, for a 24/7 dive site and worker carpark. This would create 24/7 noise, potentially release toxic contaminants buried on the site, draw hundreds more trucks and cars a day to a major pedestrian route and generate more dust and emissions for a further four years. Option A would allow the contractor to continue to use existing construction sites in Haberfield for a further four years.
Will the Premier or any of her Ministers accept responsibility for high levels of air pollution?
Haberfield Public School Parents' and Citizens President Vanessa Santoro and two other representatives wrote to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, on April 13th. Asked to respond to a community protest on April 10th, the Premier said:
"Nothing is more important than the health of children, nothing is more important than making sure communities feel safe at all times, and that includes during major construction. We've already laid down our plans for (stage 3) and they're pretty clear. But if there is anything else we can do to mitigate the impact on the community we're always open-minded about that.”
The purpose of the Haberfield P and C letter was to ask the Premier to meet with a "small group of parents and residents" so that they could provide her with "more information about our experience of living in the middle of a WestConnex construction triangle and our constructive ideas about how your government could act to improve our health and safety."
The Premier's only response was to send the letter onto the Minister for WestConnex Stuart Ayres who has not yet responded.
Local representatives have also written to NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Planning Minister Anthony Roberts asking for an investigation into air quality levels and a commitment that approval will not be given for Stage 3 construction sites near the school. Neither minister agreed to investigate.
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. She has also received no response.
Greens' Motion supporting Inner West Council Health Impact Study defeated
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 Liberal 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 at least late in May, when a staff report on noise and air pollution issues will be tabled.
Haberfield P and C rep Sherril Nixon was interviewed by Col Hesse on Radio Skid Row on May 10. Listen as she describes the impacts of construction in Haberfield.