Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link: Environmental and Health Impacts

In today's hearing for the inquiry into the Western Harbour Tunnel, Abigail raised with bureaucrats the significant environmental impacts in relation to the tunnel and link. 

Abigail questioned why the project enforces the policy of "plant two new trees for every one tree" despite that climate science tells us fully grown trees are significantly more important then saplings... 

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: There is a lot to get through in terms of what we have been hearing from community groups about concerns around various environmental and health impacts. I just wanted to touch on a couple of things that my colleagues raised. Firstly, in relation to the comment on the trees and the policy to plant two new trees for every one tree, Mr Gainsford, you said that that was standard. Where does that come from? Is that a standard policy for all projects—and if so, why?

Mr GAINSFORD (Deputy Secretary, Assessment and Systems Performance, DPIE): It is a condition of approval for the Western Harbour Tunnel and Warringah Freeway Upgrade. There is a similar condition that we have applied on a number of other major linear infrastructure projects. Some organisations have their own policies in terms of tree replacements and there are
obviously biodiversity offsets that are required for impacts on endangered ecological communities, but this is trying to capture the removal of trees that sit outside of those communities. It is a condition of approval.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: My question is whether the department has discretion to change that or whether it is something that you are bound to because it is in some sort of governing legislation.

Mr GAINSFORD: We are not following a specific guideline or piece of legislation in formulating this. But it is obviously reflecting partly the community concerns that have been raised about tree removal on projects and also reflecting commitments that the department and, I know, the Minister have been making with regard to planting of trees, particularly within western Sydney.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: And how long has this particular two-for-one condition been a standard condition?

Mr GAINSFORD: I would need to take that on notice, but there have certainly been a number of projects where we have applied similar conditions.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: I ask because, in light of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] report, what we know about climate and the importance of mature trees versus saplings, there is obviously a huge amount of science in the last few years in particular that has pointed to why new trees for one old-growth tree is not necessarily best practice anymore. Is that something that will be reviewed by the department and that the department is open to changing its approach on?

Mr GAINSFORD: Ms Boyd, yes, we are always open for feedback in terms of the application of our conditions. As I say, some agencies actually put forward higher standards. Certainly, from our point of view, we have been applying this two-to-one ratio for some period of time. But, yes, we are always open to feedback on conditions.

 

Abigail then raised the impact of air pollution...

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: I will take it up further with Transport for NSW. Thank you. Perhaps if I could turn to the EPA. Just picking up on the questions that my colleague Ms Moriarty was asking in relation to air pollution, this is another one of those areas where there has been a huge amount of new knowledge acquired in relation to air pollution globally in the last few years, but also a lot has changed in the last couple of years since the EIS was produced, particularly the bushfires we have had and we have now got COVID restrictions and the schools being told that they need to keep windows open. Hasn't there been significant change sufficient to warrant perhaps taking another look at the air pollution impacts of this project?

Mr BEAMAN (Executive Director, Regulatory Operations, NSW EPA): Ms Boyd, in relation to the health impacts of emissions from this project, there have been two processes that have occurred. One was the review by the Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer and one that is also a requirement that the Chief Health Officer actually verify the air quality modelling, including the health impacts. So those assessments by those two eminent bodies have been undertaken in terms of the air emission work. I think those independent reviews give us confidence that the air modelling work that has been done and presented in the EIS is appropriate.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: Just to clarify, once an EIS has been undertaken as at a certain date it does not matter how much changes after that time; the EPA will not step in to put on new conditions to take into account the new circumstances?

Mr BEAMAN: We will always consider new information but the information that we have got today— and it was part of the assessment review done by the Office of the Chief Scientist and also the Chief Health Officer—verified that the assessments and modelling done to date in terms of the human health impacts were appropriate, and that was supported by our internal expert review by our own air specialists at the time.

 

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: Can I just confirm this? My question was is it true that Dr Kerry Chant was only asked to review the stack contributions in terms of overall health outcomes and not the overall project. For example, the extra congestion in certain areas that we have heard will be a product of this project, the additional congestion and dust during construction and the number of access changes to the Warringah Freeway—there is a bunch of non-stack-related emissions that when you have so many schoolchildren and children generally in that area, assessing the health outcomes of the whole project might have made more sense. Can you confirm that she only looked at the stack emissions?

Mr SNOW (Director, Transport Assessments, DPIE): I cannot comment on whether Dr Chant reviewed in relation to the construction impacts but I do know that the department does liaise with NSW Health with the assessment as well, so we would have liaised with NSW Health on those broader non-operational issues. My understanding is that advice provided in relation to the EIS is primarily related to operational impacts.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: I am finding it difficult to understand—let me take a step back. Do you believe that there is sufficient monitoring and data available of current air pollution in the impacted areas from this project?

Mr SNOW: I think so, yes, both from a construction-operational circumstance and in both those situations as well that there will be further monitoring undertaken during both construction and operation. In relation to construction the proponent is required to develop an air quality monitoring program which will be done in consultation with the EPA and the broader community, as will the operational monitoring as well.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: What will happen when there is a notification that there has been an air pollution event near a school? What is the action that then gets taken to protect those children?

Mr SNOW: Look, it is probably a question better answered by the EPA or a compliance person. But I am happy to provide advice, particularly in relation to operational matters. The operational performance is actually live and as real time as possible. That is identified on a public website and has been for recent tunnels as well. If there are exceedances, then that gets reported to the department, EPA and NSW Health.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: I appreciate that. My concern is with those schools that are also being told to keep their windows open when they return and, for the foreseeable future, living with COVID we are asking for maximum ventilation. But at the same time we are building projects that are increasing the amount of air pollution around those schools. What are those schools supposed to do—close the windows, or open the windows?

Mr GAINSFORD: Ms Boyd, I guess talking to the overall assessment that was done for the Western Harbour Tunnel and the air quality assessments, the assessments themselves predicted at various point sources some increases and decreases in pollutant levels, but what I would say is that the levels of impact that were predicted where there were increases were quite small and the predictions have suggested that none of the air quality levels would be exceeded at those points. So, again, the monitoring system that has been put in place is obviously designed to ensure that the modelling itself was accurate but also that what actually happens, in effect, does not lead to those potential impacts that you have referred to there. But what I would say is that the evidence that has been provided as part of the assessment is that the impacts, where there are increases, are very low.

 

The full transcript can be found in Hansard, here.

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