OPINION BY WENDY BACON
NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) has thumbed its nose at the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), NSW Health, City of Sydney, the Inner West Council and the authors of 13,000 submissions, nearly all objecting to the Stage 3 WestConnex interchanges and tunnels between St Peters, Haberfield and Rozelle.
Last week, RMS submitted its massive Response to Submissions and Preferred Infstructure Report on behalf of the Sydney Motorway Corporation to NSW Planning. For those hoping that RMS would listen to their concerns, the report is bitterly disappointing. To those who have learned from Stages 1 and 2 to be cynical, it was a predictable sign of a corrupted planning process.
Newtown MP and Greens spokesperson for Westconnex Jenny Leong described the report as ‘huge but vacuous … It is extremely alarming that so many serious concerns about this project have not been responded to in an adequate manner.”
Leong said that reading through the “flimsy responses is shocking. The EPA’s overriding concern that it could not even assess key elements of the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] because of the lack of detail was fobbed off by feeble assurances that construction companies would provide essential details down the track.”
City Hub’s reporter has read large sections of the report. The report goes through submissions methodically, providing replies that often simply restate the EIS itself. On hundeds of occasions the report fails to engage with criticism and can barely be described as ‘responsive’.
However, this is no surprise. The purpose of the report is to provide the cover that the highly technocratic NSW Planning department needs to construct an ‘instrument of approval’ containing hundreds of conditions that their Minister Anthony Roberts will sign.
If Roberts follows the form of previous Planning Minister, Rob Stokes, Roberts will then be able to assure residents that the government is concerned and that care has been taken to protect them. A smooth path will then be provided for the serious action – the privatisation of 51% of the Sydney Motorway Corporation’s WestConnex, which the NSW government is desperate to achieve by later this year.
In a covering letter to the EPA’s submission, the NSW Metropolitan Director Giselle Howard stated that the EPA was concerned about “significant and ongoing impacts experienced by the communities at Haberfield and St Peters, particularly in relation to noise and vibration.” She finds that there is “minimal evidence to suggest that this has shaped the approach to mitigation” in the EIS. The EPA considers that these “need to be quantifed and assessed in detail” before approval, rather than in a post-approval plan.
The RMS does not address Ms Howard’s criticism directly but points out at length that the impacts will be within the approved conditions and will depend on the detailed design. This issue provides a good example of how this deceptive process sells the community short.
In the case of Rozelle, there is as yet no known design solution for a three level underground interchange in a densely settled, sloping urban area. RMS has put this part of WestConnex out to competitive tender again, having failed to attract an appropriate builder. RMS has not yet answered a question from this reporter about whether the ‘concept’ in the EIS is still the operative concept for the design of the Rozelle Interchange.
Haberfield residents, who have already experienced years of destruction of their housing, tree and open space along with horrific noise and dust impacts, were promised during the Stage 2 assessment that there would be no surface construction in Haberfield and Ashfield during Stage 3. As soon as the planning for Stage 3 began, it was evident that this would not be the case, leaving the community exposed to more than 7 years of impacts. The Preferred Infrastructure Report that accompanies the main response was expected to finalise the construction sites in Haberfield, but in fact they remain open, leaving the construction companies to make their decision later.
The NSW EPA, which falls within the same large department as Planning, and other government departments, will now be under pressure to submit to the inexorable process and come up with the best conditions they can. But the EPA’s own submission is a tacit acknowledgement of how hard it is to enforce compliance. This became obvious during Stages One and Two.
Rotten egg-like odours that made some residents physically sick and kept school children inside or away from school smothered St Peters last year. It emerged that the EIS for Stage 2 only dealt with closing down a toxic landfill that is the site for the St Peters Interchange before, not after, construction had started.This left the under-resourced EPA struggling to force CPB contractors (previously Leighton Contractors) to take extra remediation and monitoring measures. Experienced waste management consultant and local resident Charlie Pierce told the Sydney Morning Herald that the site was being irresponsibily managed and corners were being cut. EPA imposed a fine. Nine months later, the EPA is still collecting evidence to prosecute.
If this was an ordinary work site, the EPA could have prohibited work until the odour problem was solved. However as the NSW EPA was forced to explain to residents, an obscure provision of the NSW Planning Act had removed the EPA’s powers to stop work on a Critical State Significant Infrastructure site. It takes nothing more than the Minister’s signature to make a site ‘critical’, which also has the effect of removing any possibiility of Planning Assessment hearings or court appeals about the merit of projects. These provisions were slipped through parliament around the time that the NSW government decided to go ahead with WestConnex. It further undermines pubic confidence in the planning process that engineering company AECOM, which has prepared the WestConnex EIS for all three stages, was one of a number of companies paid by the NSW government to build the original justification for Westconnex.
The problem is that the real decisions are all made behind closed doors, excluding any possibility of a transparent sifting of evidence or of independent expert voices being heard.
There is a huge amount of evidence that WestConnex is no solution to Sydney’s costly traffic congestion problem. It may remove some traffic from some surface roads but will create more hotspots that are polluted and near gridlock. Submissions by City of Sydney and many others made this point strongly.
RMS acknowledges that traffic will be very bad around Anzac Bridge and around Sydney Airport even if all of the planned tollways are built including the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, the F6 and the Sydney Gateway by the mid-2020s. But don’t worry, the RMS informs the NSW Planning Department that it is already thinking ahead. It will do a traffic report after the tollroad opens. If there is a problem, RMS will manage it. If not, another road can always be built.
NSW Planning has at most 90 days from Feburary 5 to haggle over the conditions before assessment is due. Behind the closed doors of the banks, well-paid advisors and the Sydney Motorway Corporation, the serious haggling continues about what price will be paid by which private consortium for the right to manage construction and collect the tolls for decades to come.
Some big changes are needed. The Greens have once again called for a halt to the project and an inquiry. NSW Labor has many criticisms of WestConnex but what policy they will take to the March 2019 election has not yet been clearly explained. The clock is ticking.
Wendy Bacon was previously Professor of Journaism at UTS and has campaigned against Westconnex.