BY WENDY BACON
Demolition work stopped on the site of a massive WestConnex construction site in Haberfield heritage conservation area in Sydney’s inner west after residents complained about dust from asbestos and other waste produced in very windy conditions.
Despite two Stop WestConnex occupations, a vigil, daily picketing and the strong opposition of Ashfield Council, demolition began last week and by Tuesday, three houses and some businesses had been turned into large piles of rubble and contaminated waste.
Scores of homes and businesses are slated for destruction in Haberfield, not because they are needed inside the tollway footprint, but because they are needed for the construction site.
WestCONnex Action Group (WAG) spokesperson Sharon Laura who lives nearby said she arrived to picket at around 7am on Tuesday morning to find work continuing in blustery conditions. By 9am, it was clear that small hoses used to dampen rubble could not control the dust and the fence around the construction site nearly blew over twice. Laura said that she unsuccessfully tried to make contact with Sydney Motorway Corporation’s (SMC) Westconnex team or construction company Leighton’s staff. Eventually she finally got through to a community engagement manager. While she was explaining what she saw as a dangerous situation, the temporary fence fell over altogether.
Work was then stopped for an hour. After the fence was secured, work continued in high winds.
City Hub later observed asbestos sheets being carried from a house by masked men just a metre from a pedestrian footpath in strong winds that continued during the afternoon. Asbestos is a dangerous substance which in tiny amounts can cause the deadly cancer mesothelioma. The front verandah of the house was covered with a sheet of plastic which was partially blown away. It finally fell to the ground. While Leighton had erected a small sign announcing asbestos removal, no warning had been given to residents who walk past the site. Asbestos removed from the houses is being carted across the road to the main construction site for temporary storage.
This latest episode with asbestos reflect similar concerns about SMC’s lack of warning and care in handling of asbestos voiced by residents in Granville, Auburn, Erskine Park and St Peters last year.
This week’s events are only a sign of what is around the corner for residents during the entire construction period of nearly three years, unless work can be stopped.
While the odd truck might not seem much, three hundred heavy trucks — more than from any other WestConnex site — will travel to and from this site 24 hours a day for seven days a week after tunnelling begins. Rather than turn straight onto the main Parramatta Road, they will instead detour two kilometres up and down local Wattle Street before leaving the area to travel out to Western Sydney where thousands of trucks will dump their load each day. Although trucks are not supposed to travel down other smaller streets, City Hub observed that happening yesterday.
Independent heritage consultants and the National Trust strongly recommended against the destruction of such a large number of buildings in the heritage conservation zone. NSW Minister for Planning and Environment Rob Stokes nevertheless granted approval for the Westconnex M4 in February, but his consent included detailed conditions for the treatment of buildings in the heritage zone. But local groups, residents and the Council have not received clear information about what procedures are being adopted for the documentation and reuse of heritage materials. When City Hub visited the site during Saturday’s demolition, large earth movers were crushing materials together, creating dust and very loud noise. Residents complained and on Monday, residents observed some of the rubble was sorted.
Local historian Vince Crow, who was awarded an Order of Australia for his contribution to local heritage, has written to the SMC stating that “it appears that current demolition practices in relation to properties in Wolseley and Northcote Streets are not in accord” with the Planning Department conditions. He included photos of smashed tiles that could have been reused from the remains of one of the demolished houses.
WAG spokesperson Sharon Laura told City Hub, “It is appalling that now that this socially destructive project has been approved, it has been left to residents to monitor if there is compliance with conditions without any clear information, resources or lines of communication.”
On Tuesday night, Ashfield Council passed a motion asking Council officers to seek urgent legal advice on the possibility of obtaining an injunction from the NSW Supreme Court to have SMC cease all demolition works in the Ashfield Council area until SMC has demonstrated to Council that they are complying with all conditions of consent in regard to heritage items proposed for demolition to facilitate the WestConnex project.
The first of the demolitions was happening as Newtown Greens MP Jenny Leong was holding a People’s Public Inquiry in NSW Parliament House. On Tuesday she told Parliament, “As we heard testimonies from health professionals, council transport planners, academics, residents, community campaigners and members of Parliament, we were informed that the Sydney Motorway Corporation were bulldozing heritage homes in Haberfield … residents who were forced from their homes of many decades were left crying as their beautiful houses were destroyed and because their lives had to be rebuilt somewhere else. This story is repeated along the route of this proposed polluting private toll road. It is devastating.WestConnex is not about finding a solution to Sydney’s traffic congestion; it is about the transfer of public money to private development and construction companies.”
She called on the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese and current member for Grayndler to “join with the community in opposing the allocation of any further Federal funding to this project until a public inquiry is conducted and an Auditor-General’s report is provided.”
Wendy Bacon is a supporter of the Westconnex Action Group.