Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Road Infrastructure, Forestry

9:04 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I wish to discuss an issue of great concern to communities in Sydney that are located near the current WestConnex construction sites in Sydney's inner and western suburbs. This $15.4-billion tollway, the largest infrastructure project this country has embarked on since the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, is flawed in many ways, from the fundamental and retrograde premise of building massive roads and tunnels to supposedly combat congestion to the serious governance and assurance issues raised by the New South Wales Auditor-General's report in December last year, which called for, among other things, the business case for stages 2 an 3 of the project to be 'formally and thoroughly revisited'. It is a project that has been condemned by local councils that it will impact and is a project that has been mocked by independent transport consultants and anyone who has any expertise on moving people in large cities in the 21st century.

To date, no one has seen this business case for this project while work continues at pace and apparently unhindered by such a formality. Billions of dollars in contracts have been locked in before the environmental impact statement for stage 1, the M4 East tunnel, was released, while work at the former Alexandria landfill site in St Peters, the site for the proposed massive highway stage 2 interchange, has caused significant concern about the excavation and transport of thousands of tonnes of asbestos contaminated materials from the site. Since August, the WestConnex Delivery Authority has removed hundreds of truckloads of contaminated waste each week from this site. We heard Prime Minister Turnbull speak with great passion about public transport. If that passion is real, if it is meaningful for the people of our large cities let alone the whole of the country, this is the type of project that should be cancelled and the money put into public transport. Otherwise it makes a farce of all his fine words.

It is well documented that the Alexandria site contains huge volumes of asbestos, reportedly as much as the equivalent of 70 50-metre swimming pools. Residents had previously been assured that contamination and remediation issues on this site would be dealt with as part of the WestConnex environment impact statement. However, this document has not yet appeared and, to my knowledge, has not even been lodged with the New South Wales Department of Planning. So, understandably, locals were shocked when large-scale earth removal and excavation work began on the site two months ago.

In the initial weeks of work, local residents monitoring the site reported multiple breaches of fundamental safety rules regarding that handling and transport of asbestos. Urgent complaints were made to the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority, the WestConnex Delivery Authority and the Marrickville and City of Sydney councils, which are jointly responsible for the site.

Trucks transporting asbestos were not fully covered or washed prior to leaving the site; and the mandated, dedicated complaints line was not even in operation. Even up to last week, residents observed wheels unwashed and work continuing in high winds. Wind speeds were measured at nearly 80 kilometres at nearby Mascot. The WestConnex spokesperson contacted by residents tried to convince them that the work being done on the site would not create dust all that day. Last Saturday night a resident reported that a truck was seen entering the site 10 hours after the regulation closing hours. So many rules but so many breaches!

The local WestConnex Action Group has already blockaded the site several times. Spokesperson Ms Pauline Lockie told New Matilda journalists:

Every time residents visit the site, they’ve reported numerous safety breaches. And it’s only when WestConnex’s contractors know they’re being watched that they are serious about observing safety procedures, such as properly watering the road entry and exit point from the toxic dump.

Acting on behalf of the WestConnex Action Group, the Environmental Defenders Office wrote to the WestConnex Delivery Authority more than three weeks ago, raising urgent questions about the legality of the work and about the handling of asbestos and other contaminated soils from this site.

As I mentioned previously, there is no EIS for this stage of the project and to date no business case. Marrickville Council passed a motion of concern, seeking urgent legal advice with a view to issuing a stop-work order on the site. Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, wrote to the New South Wales Minister for the Environment, Mark Speakman, asking that all work halt on the site until the EPA and WDA could hold a public meeting at which residents' concerns and questions could be answered.

But concerns about the site do not end at St Peters. Thousands of trucks ladened with asbestos waste have been driven out to the Transpacific landfill in Erskine Park in far Western Sydney and to Marsden Park near Blacktown. Although the Erskine Park landfill is licensed to accept asbestos, it states clearly on its website that it does not accept asbestos. In response to questions from New Matilda, Luke Slechta, environmental specialist at Transpacific Cleanaway, said that the site 'accepts soils contaminated with low levels of controlled substances as per EPA guidelines. The resultant waste is classified as contaminated soil'. The concerns obviously continue.

There are considerably less safety precautions on the large and open Erskine Park site than at St Peters, and that is saying a lot. The material is dumped near the top of a large hill. It has been reported that the waste material is not covered, nor is water applied to it at the time of delivery. Truck wheels are not hosed before leaving the site. When asked whether Transpacific covered the contaminated material at the time it was dumped on the site, Slechta responded that, 'material is covered as soon as practicable'. When asked about whether sprinklers were used on the waste, he responded: 'Erskine Park uses a water cart for dust suppression. The water cart has the ability to also spray water from a hose.'

Slechta said that Transpacific inspect all contaminated waste at the site of origin and that a National Association of Testing Authorities Australia accredited report must be received with any contaminated soils. But so far these claims have not been substantiated with evidence of these reports or who in fact is providing them. The EPA apparently has visited the Alexandria landfill site on six occasions since December last year—that is less than once a month—while massive amounts of toxic waste materials are being dug up and carted from the inner west to the western suburbs through local streets, where it seems that no-one is adequately monitoring what is being done and dealing with it safely.

Truck drivers are told not to leave their cabins in Alexandria, and workers in full safety gear, with masks, are now washing down the vehicles before they leave the site. But way out west, where no-one can see, I doubt whether the workers or the local businesses or the residents nearby have adequate protection or information about this waste and what is blowing around off the top of this hill in strong winds.

The handling of the Alexandria landfill waste is not the only WDA activity currently triggering concerns about its competence to manage health and safety issues on this massive infrastructure project. Out in Granville, in Sydney's west, a large amount of asbestos has been unearthed where work has begun on the first stage of WestConnex. Two lanes are being added to the existing M4, bringing the huge tollway far closer to communities living alongside the route.

Piles of asbestos have been fenced off, covered and labelled as toxic in a number of streets in Granville. They were left lying inside work compounds for weeks, very close to residential streets and homes just opposite. A spokesperson for the WestConnex Delivery Authority said that the 'M4 Widening Construction Environmental Management Plan details the procedures followed for the removal of asbestos material' and that 'site inspections of stockpiles are carried out on a daily basis by construction personnel and all asbestos stockpiles have been confirmed as covered'. However, residents have photographed these piles of toxic waste and observed holes in the coverings at different locations. This is deeply worrying. It has huge implications for the health and safety of locals and people visiting that area. In early September the ABC reported that residents were not informed about some of this waste as it was within the 'boundaries of the project'.

The WestConnex Delivery Authority stated that discoveries of asbestos are 'not uncommon', and the environmental impact report for the M4 widening project stated that sampling revealed some asbestos present along this route. However, more asbestos seems to have been found than predicted. There are deeply worrying reports of asbestos having been found earlier this year in Adderley Street in Auburn. This is very close to where children walk to the nearby Auburn North Public School, which is next door to a childcare centre. Additionally, the EPA is aware that stockpiles of asbestos from previous operations have been exposed along the M4 widening works, but they are not presently taking any steps to safely remove this material from residential areas.

There is also a large amount of semicovered asbestos waste along a canal next to the roadworks in Granville. Residents have been appealing to Parramatta Council and the New South Wales government for years to have it safely removed. Scores of residents brought this situation to the attention of the planning department and the WestConnex consortium in a submission to stage 1A of the M4 widening process but received no response. Residents are now concerned that this dangerous asbestos will be further disturbed during construction and from wind generated by traffic speeding along the M4 almost directly over their homes. This is what is happening in Western Sydney today. We know the threat and the dangers posed by asbestos. We have heard from Liberal and Labor politicians about their commitment to Western Sydney, yet this situation has been going on and is continuing to deteriorate.

The WestConnex Delivery Authority is showing contempt for proper process, fundamental safety precautions and due care. We need to ask: how does it get away with such dangerous and irresponsible activities? The answer lies with the weak planning and environment laws in New South Wales and the corrupting culture that still operates out of Macquarie Street. If Prime Minister Turnbull is to be true to his passion for public transport, then, as I said earlier, the WestConnex project should be shelved and all the money should go to long-term, sustainable public transport solutions—and this toxic waste in the inner west and western suburbs should be speedily dealt with.

On another matter, my colleague Senator Janet Rice, the Greens forestry spokesperson, spoke earlier tonight about an excellent plan to save our native forests and provide a wonderful future for the communities around those forests by ending logging in our native forests. I had the opportunity recently to visit the forests in south-east New South Wales with Senator Rice, and I congratulate her on the work that she is doing to save the forests across this country.

One area that we visited was Glenbog State Forest. Sadly, this area has become a case study in animal cruelty. The plight of wombats being buried alive in logging operations in Glenbog State Forest and in other state forests will continue if we do not end these logging practices. Wombats inhabit many of these forests. They face the prospect of being buried alive, where they face a slow inevitable death entombed in their burrows. Whether they die by asphyxiation, starve to death or are just crushed, it involves great cruelty. We know that the situation in the Glenbog State Forest is associated with logging for woodchips. Woodchipping is undertaken by the South East Fibre Exports, and much of it is exported out of Eden. Woodchipping is killing our wildlife. Every time we lose habitat we are losing wildlife, and this is a most extreme example of it.

Some people have done some excellent work to highlight these problems. I congratulate Marie and Ray Wynan and the Wombat Protection Society, who alerted the world—so much of their work became an international media story—by highlighting what was happening to wombats being buried alive in their burrows. They recorded and marked around 150 active burrows in that state forest with yellow tape and paint, yet they still came across crushed tunnels. They marked these tunnels and burrows very clearly with GPS locations so they could save the wombats. I very warmly congratulate them for the work that they undertook. They did have some success where the roads were moved so they were not going across the burrows and logs were not dumped on top of the burrows, but still Marie and Ray Wynan would often turn up the next day and find that the wrong thing had been done.

Marie and Ray did obtain the agreement of the Forestry Corporation of NSW to ensure that the entrances to the burrows would not be not obstructed by logging debris or otherwise damaged, but, despite this understanding, logging operations in the Glenbog State Forest subsequently did cause the collapse of burrow entrances. The Environmental Protection Authority inspected the site and provided recommendations about protecting wombat burrows but took no further action. Again, thanks to many very hardworking individuals like Ray and Marie Wynan, many wombats were saved. But it is an extraordinary situation that we are treating wildlife like this.

It needs to be noted that many of our wombats are under severe threat from habitat loss, urban development and a parasitic infection that causes a type of mange. In parts of rural south-east Australia it is actually legal for farmers to shoot wombats. People find that extraordinary, but it is just part of the mismanagement of this unique species. I congratulate my Greens colleague, David Shoebridge, in the New South Wales state parliament, who tabled a motion about this issue in the Legislative Council last year asking the house to call on the New South Wales government to immediately halt logging in that state forest and urgently review the policies.

As I mentioned, there is an international aspect to this matter. Some Japanese campaigners who came to the Glenbog State Forest were so deeply troubled by what they saw that the organisation the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network has also taken up this campaign, informing clients of Nippon Paper of the devastating consequences for wombats from the logging and woodchipping of its subsidiary South East Fibre Exports. The disastrous impact on the wombat population in Glenbog State Forest could be solved quite easily by ending the logging of our native forests.

We also saw how the urgent need to end the logging in our state forests at the Nullica State Forest, also in the south-east. The logging operation here is an example of why the exemption of the regional forest agreement from the Commonwealth EPBC Act just does not work. This is something that I know has been taken up with Mr Hunt, the Minister for the Environment, but so far he has failed to deal with it. At this forest we saw the habitat of the quoll. The quoll is listed federally as endangered but in New South Wales it is only listed as vulnerable. The exemption for RFA areas under the EPBC Act is based on the assumption that RFAs provide equivalent protection. Even if an effective and enforceable prescription were employed to protect the quoll as vulnerable, it would not be equivalent protection.

Senator Rice and I saw this for ourselves. There was massive damage done to quoll habitat in Nullica State Forest. What has happened to those quolls? Have they been squashed under machines? Have they gone somewhere, looking for another bit of forest? When you start to lose habitat, you lose species numbers and it gets to a point where these populations are not viable.

Harriett Swift, on behalf of the South East Region Conservation Alliance, on 9 September this year wrote to Minister Hunt, pointing out this inconsistency because of the way the RFA becomes senior to the EPBC Act because of the way the laws have been written. Ms Swift wrote, 'I believe you have an obligation to intervene to halt the Nullica logging to protect the integrity of the EPBC Act and to help ensure the survival of this nationally endangered species.' If it is recognised as endangered at a national level, surely it deserves the protection under the EPBC Act and surely the environment minister should do the right thing by these constituents and reply to their letter in the first instance and ensure that protection over an act which he has responsibility for is carried out.