BY WENDY BACON
A professor of respiratory medicine and a specialist doctor who has researched air pollution told the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into WestConnex last week that they do not accept NSW Roads and Maritime Services’ claim that unfiltered stacks are world’s best practice.
The Inquiry has published hundreds of submissions from groups and residents expressing fears that toxic air from unfiltered tunnels will blow onto their suburbs, exposing them to health risks. Concern about air quality, both during and after construction, has emerged as a key challenge to the government’s defence of the WestConnex project and its linked projects: the Western Harbour Tunnel, Beaches Link, Sydney Gateway and the F6 to the South.
Professor Paul Torzillo,a Senior Respiratory Physician at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital told the Inquiry that he considered Westconnex to be a “serious population health issue.” Asked if he would agree that unfiltered tunnels were world’s best practice, he said no. He is concerned that traffic-related air pollution contributes about one third of pollution in a city like Sydney and that international expererience has shown that motorways increase car use and the number of cars coming into the city. He is concerned about pollution in the tunnels, around tunnel portals and near congested roads.
Anaesthetist Dr Ray Nassar told the committee that current guidelines applying to WestConnex are probably already outdated by international medical research that found that in the UK, there were “29,000 premature deaths from air pollution exposure last year, the majority of which occurred at what we would consider to be safe levels of ambient air.” He urged the Committee to look at research in Belgium that showed that filtration was improving air quality around tunnels.
Asked if he could reconcile his own research with RMS assertions about best practice, Dr Nassar told the Inquiry that it is very hard to find evidence in the scientific literature “that is comparable to anything we are doing here in Sydney because most of the other tunnels that have been researched are either very short or built specially for urban areas … so it is hard to say it is best practice because we cannot really compare it. But if you look at what is happening overseas in some similar tunnels you will find that, for example in Hong Kong, they are installing filtration in urban tunnels and they are calling that a Smart City project—they are putting in air purifiers and filtration, and this is also the case in Tokyo and in Madrid.”
St Peters, Haberfield and Rozelle Public Schools will all be close to two or more stacks. The Inquiry asked Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) CEO Ken Kenofski if he was confident this was safe. He answered “The facilities are located in the best possible locations. I think the thing to be clear about is that these facilities are safe. That is the important thing. They are safe for the entire community. It is not me that is saying that; it is the independent air quality committee.” He then told the Inquiry that NSW Planning act on the advice of the Chief Scientist and the Department of Health and that the EPA decides. “What all of those bodies are saying is that the process has come up with a reasonable way of managing ventilation.” He did not mention that, as reported by City Hub earlier this year, the Committee is funded and administratively supported by RMS, and its membership includes himself and other RMS representatives.
The NSW government also argues that earlier this year, it introduced a second line of defence for its unfiltered stacks – a new system that would require each tunnel to get a license from the EPA, which is currently not required. City Hub asked the EPA whether the new licensing system is in place and was told the amendments “are currently being drafted.” The M4 East tunnel, which will open next year, has been approved under critical infrastructure legislation that does not allow the EPA to refuse licenses or to stop work if there is a breach of conditions.
Liberal MLC Shane Mallard asserted that the “beauty of having annual licences as opposed to one-off approvals, which is what was in place … [is] our assurance.” Dr Nassar told the Inquiry that while licenses are welcome, he is “dictated to by what you would call the “precautionary principle”, which is that if you are not sure that something is safe, you do not go ahead unless you can convince yourself it is safe.”
“I see my role in ..this whole debate, as the person who has got medical training and a medical background. I have looked at evidence because I can interpret it, and I am basically seeing a fire here. I can see the smoke and I can see the fire. I am just trying to alert people to the fact that there is a fire. I do not know what is burning. I do not know how long it will burn for and I do not know who started the fire. That is up to tunnel engineers and ventilation engineers to assess, but I feel that my role in this argument is to alert people to the fact that there is a fire and that we will need to do something about air pollution and its treatment before it gets out of control.
Dr Noel Child, an independent tunnel engineer, has stated in his submission that he does not agree the Westconnex longitudinal tunnel ventilation is safe in long tunnels. He has not yet been invited to testify by the parliamentary committee.
In questioning residents’ representatives, the Committee’s Liberal members challenged them to say that they did not trust the EPA and the Tunnel Committee. After hearing the evidence of Dr Nassar, NoW [No Westconnex] Annandale co-convenors Kel Riordan and Richard Dudley-Smith when asked if they trusted the EPA, said they were not sure as they were not experts. Asked if the had confidence in the Air Quality Tunnel Committee, they said no.
Their community around Johnston Street Annandale fears a massive increase in particulate matter pollution if Stage 3 goes ahead from 4000 extra diesel trucks a day past three primary schools and two preschools with a total of over 1,500 students.
This is one instalment in a series on the Parliamentary Inquiry into WestConnex.