High-rise apartments shouldn't be built near WestConnex tunnel entrances due to vehicle exhaust pollution. Photo: Alec Smart

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By WENDY BACON

The M4 East Tunnel has been allowed to open last week, although several important conditions imposed by NSW Planning have not been fulfilled. The failure to meet these conditions exposes Inner West residents to potential health risks.

After a number of concerns about gas leaks and other safety concerns slowed progress, the Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Minister for Transport Andrew Constance finally opened the M4 East tunnel about nine months after its original start date. So far, while some drivers report a smooth $4.27 ride through the tunnel, most drivers, including trucks, are opting for the untolled Parramatta Rd. Some media reported that the new tunnel would enable drivers to miss 22 traffic lights, in fact, it is 12. The time saved is dependent on the time of day travelled but it is often far less than the 22 minutes quoted in government PR.

But while the NSW government boasted about its tollways, on the ground residents living at either end of the project have many safety and health concerns.

There was huge opposition to the M4 East before it was approved in early 2016. Approval was a fait accompli however as the NSW Government had already given the construction contract to CPB Contractors.

Rob Stokes MP, Minister for Planning, granted approval making much of tight conditions, which have already been breached on numerous occasions during the construction phase.

The NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Impacts of WestConnex also confirmed that there were problems in the Westconnex and Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) complaints system, meaning many problems were never satisfactorily addressed.

M4 East fails to meet conditions

Much of the community concern was around the issue of air quality. To allay these concerns, conditions were imposed around its monitoring. One of these conditions for the development of controls to ensure that new buildings around the unfiltered pollution stacks at each end of the tunnel to not expose people to unacceptable health risks. There is evidence that polluted air ricocheting off higher buildings can disrupt its dispersion into the atmosphere. This means that pollution levels can be higher for residents living about ground level or on higher areas above the tunnel outlet. These risks were not modelled during the M4 East Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process.

While the Ashfield area around the Eastern ventilation facility is mostly low rise, there are already high rise buildings around the Western stack at Homebush. City Hub became concerned about the potential for more approvals and drew the attention of Strathfield and Inner West Councils to the issue early in 2017.

Under Condition E18, the RMS must assist relevant councils in developing an air quality assessment processes to be included in a Development Control Plan to be used for building approvals for new developments in the area adjacent to the ventilation outlets. According to the condition, these controls are supposed to take into account the height and width of buildings that could be affected by the pollution plume from the tunnel stacks or affect the dispersion of air through building wake effects. The condition stated that the RMS was expected to pay for the work to develop the controls.

From the point of view of the safety of residents, one would have expected that RMS and Councils would develop the controls after receiving approval. This would mean that during the construction phase, no more buildings would be approved near the tunnels that could expose residents to unforeseen health risks.

But instead, the issue of the development controls has limped along so slowly to the point when the tunnel is now open and no controls are in place. In response to questions, a Strathfield Council spokesperson informed City Hub that three or four buildings have been approved near the Homebush ventilation stack since the M4 East was approved. These buildings could house hundreds of residents, adding to the thousands already living in high rise buildings near the Homebush stack.

High rise buildings have also been approved in the zone around the New M5 and M4/M5 stacks in St Peters and Arncliffe.

Why have no planned controls been developed?

The issue was raised at the Parliamentary Inquiry into Impacts of Westconnex. In response to questions from Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann, Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) told the Inquiry that meetings were first held with the Inner West and Strathfield Councils in May 2017.

The RMS statement continued: “Following further communications with councils, which indicated that neither council required direct input into the scope of the modelling works, SMC [Sydney Motorway Corporation] engaged ERM Australia [Environmental Resources Management] to undertake the required air quality modelling, which is required to inform the preparation of the development controls.” Since SMC was sold in 2018, its new owner Transurban is now responsible for this contract.

Last year, ERM, which is a global environmental consultancy, acquired Pacific Environment, the company that has been paid more than $7 million to do the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Air Quality studies for WestConnex. As City Hub has previously reported, Pacific Environment was also chosen by the NSW Chief Scientist’s Committee to do research relevant to the validating the model used for the WestConnex EIS Air Quality reports. The Chief Scientist’s Committee’s tunnel committee, which is the body that the NSW government has relied on to approve unfiltered stacks, is administered and funded by RMS. City Hub’s reporters concluded that “the choice of a company that has a large commercial stake in Westconnex to assist in the supposedly independent ACTAQ research is an apparent conflict of interest.”

Strathfield Council confirmed this week that Council had not yet received the ERM modelling or a draft development control plan. Council was not aware that ERM, the company appointed to do the modelling, was the same company that was paid for the EIS studies.

CIty Hub asked Strathfield Council if it was correct to state that it did not want any input into the modelling. The answer was that Council “could not confirm either way.” City Hub also asked the Inner West Council if it is correct to state that they wanted no input but have so far received no answer.

” The failure to put in place development controls designed to protect the public is yet another illustration of our dysfunctional and irresponsible planning system where the community is left to try to enforce conditions and regulations while organisations like NSW Planning, RMS, Transurban Westconnex and, it even seems in this case, some local Councils look the other way, ” said Paul Jeffery co-convenor of anti-WestConnex campaign group No WestConnex Public Transport Now.

Strathfield Council has not yet sent a list of buildings that have been approved or are currently planned to Westconnex, although it has a proposed list. The Council spokesperson said that it expected that the control plan would be developed by WestConnex and the Department of Planning.

Why does the modelling matter?

The EIS relied on old Sydney air quality monitoring that is now years out of date. In December 2017, WestConnex was required to monitor at 6 sites along the M4 East for one year before the tunnel opened.  City Hub has reported extensively on these findings, which show that at the sites closest to the stacks and portals, Haberfield Public School, Ramsay Street and Powells Creek, the particulate matter air quality levels recorded in 2018 were well above those predicted in the EIS. They were also higher than other areas of Sydney. This more up to date data should be taken into account in any further assessment of pollution levels and health risks for residents living in existing or planned buildings near the stacks. According to scientific research, there are no safe levels of PM 2.5 which is link to respiratory and heart disease and cancer.

However, Strathfield Council believes that only the old EIS data is being used for the new modelling. In answer to the question: If the modelling depends on EIS data is the Council concerned that it may not reflect actual levels as the 2018 Ambient data was higher than in predicted in the EIS? Council replied that it “cannot confirm either way.” ( More stories on the 2018 monitoring can be found here and here.)

Transurban has also failed to comply with another condition which mandates that one month before the tunnel opens, a multilanguage newsletter explaining air monitoring arrangements is to be distributed to residents living near the tunnel exits. City Hub could not find any resident that remembered receiving such a newsletter. No such document exists in the WestConnex document library. The real-time monitoring website that has been operating for a year before the tunnel opened was switched off before the tunnel opened with no forwarding address. A new Transurban site has been switched on but even residents with IT expertise took some time to find it. While this breach may not seem so serious as the one involving buildings near unfiltered stacks, it adds to the impression that NSW Planning and Transurban do not take conditions seriously and leave it to residents to identify and complain about failures. The new site states that monthly reports of air quality data are available but in fact, the last two months are missing.

“We have reached out to our members but no one has seen this so-called newsletter. This merely reinforces the lack of transparency that one can only expect when all the data is in the hands of the company Transurban that hopes to make huge profits out of WestConnex and its future planned toll roads,” said NOWPT’s Paul Jeffery.

Bus Lanes never materialise

Back in 2016, University of Sydney transport researcher Chris Standen argued in his submission to the M4 East that the proposal that was assessed and approved was significantly different from the proposed project. Sometime after the RMS put forward the M4 East to NSW Planning, a proposal was added for two bus lanes to be included in the untolled section of Parramatta Road that runs along the route of the M4 East tunnel. Ostensibly, these bus lanes were supposed to make the project more attractive to those who argued that public transport options had been ignored. But Standen argued in his submission that the bus lanes were a device to enable traffic modellers to come up with numbers that would make the M4 East a viable proposition. By reducing space for cars and trucks on Parramatta Road, they led WestConnex traffic modellers to increase the number of cars and trucks that would use the tunnel. This in turn impacted on the air quality predictions. ( For more read page 12 of Standen’s submission.)

Somewhere along the way, the bus lanes disappeared.  In April 2019 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Transurban was in ‘clear breach’ of Condition 34 by failing to provide for extra bus lanes or an alternative public transport option within the project. The Department of Planning told the SMH that the government had given itself up to 5 years to meet the requirement.

This makes even more important that all available up to date information be taken into account for the modelling of air flows that potentially carry health risks for thousands of residents living near tunnel portals and stacks. What is the point of relying on findings that appear to have underestimated real-time dangerous particulate matter levels and were in any case based on wrong assumptions?

Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at UTS. She has campaigned against Westconnex. Read more of her stories on altmedia or at wendybacon.com