WestConnex’s Asbestos Problem


The authority overseeing the controversial development faces serious questions about its handling of asbestos and other toxic materials along the 33 kilometre tollway route. Wendy Bacon and Cathy Peters report.

The development of Sydney’s massive WestConnex motorway is delivering toxic asbestos waste from a highly contaminated site in St Peters to a landfill site in Western Sydney which, according to its website, does not accept asbestos.

Since August, the WestConnex Delivery Authority (WDA) has removed hundreds of truckloads of contaminated waste each week from the old Alexandria landfill site in St Peters where it plans to build a massive spaghetti style interchange at the end of the second proposed WestConnex M5 tollway.

The site has been previously reported as containing the equivalent of 70 Olympic swimming pools of asbestos. Residents had been told that contamination issues would be dealt with as part of the WestConnex Environment Impact Statement, which will not be lodged with the NSW Department of Planning until later this year. They were shocked when large-scale earth removal and excavation work began on the site where a waste facility had operated prior to its forced acquisition by the WDA in 2014.

Local residents have reported many breaches of rules regarding the handling and transport of asbestos to the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), WestConnex Delivery Authority (WDA) and Marrickville Council and City of Sydney councils, which are jointly responsible for the site.

Trucks transporting asbestos are supposed to be fully covered and have wheels clean and wet when they leave the site. Contaminated waste sites are also supposed to have a dedicated complaints line and work should stop in high winds. New Matilda has observed breaches of all of these rules.

The WestConnex Action Group (WAG) has already blockaded the site several times. Spokesperson Pauline Lockie said the group would protest outside the site again this Saturday. “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.

“It’s simply not good enough that residents are expected to protect hundreds of thousands of people from this deadly asbestos because WestConnex can’t be bothered to do so,” she said.

Acting on behalf of the WestConnex Action Group, the Environmental Defenders’ Office wrote to the WDA more than two weeks ago raising urgent questions about the legality of the work, but has yet to receive a reply.

The City of Sydney and Marrickville Council, which are jointly responsible for the site and are opposed to the whole WestConnex project, have responded to residents’ concerns.

Marrickville Council has sought urgent legal advice with a view to issuing a stop work order on the site. Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore last week wrote to the Minister for Environment, Mark Speakman asking for all work to stop on the site until the EPA and WDA hold a public meeting at which residents’ concerns and questions about work on the site can be answered.

But concerns about the site do not end at St Peters. Thousands of trucks laden with asbestos waste then take the long journey to the Transpacifc landfill at Erskine Park in far Western Sydney. Although Erskine Park landfill is licenced 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, told New Matilda that the site “accepts soils contaminated with low levels of controlled substances as per EPA guidelines. The resultant waste is classified as contaminated soil.”

Erskine Park landfill. Image: Cathy Peters.

There are considerably less safety precautions on the large open Erskine Park site than at St Peters. The material is dumped near the top of a large hill. An anonymous observer told New Matilda that the material is not covered and water is not applied to the waste at the time of delivery. Truck wheels are not hosed before leaving the site. Asked whether contaminated waste was covered at the time of delivery, Slechta responded that “material is covered as soon as practicable.” Asked about whether sprinklers are 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.”

According to Transpacific, the NSW EPA inspected the site on September 8 and “no issues were identified”. Slechta said that Transpacific inspect all contaminated waste at the “site of origin”. Transpacific also stated that a National Association of Testing Authorities Australia (NATA) accredited report must be received with any contaminated soils but when New Matilda attempted to clarify this with NATA, they could not find any reference to the Transpacific Erskine Park facility being accredited with them.

The handling of the Alexandria Landfill waste is not the only WDA activity currently raising serious questions about its competence to manage health and safety issues on what would be the largest infrastructure project in Australia, costing more than $15.4 billion.

In Granville, also in Sydney’s west, a large amount of asbestos has been unearthed where work has begun on the first stage of the WestConnex. Two lanes are being added to the existing M4 that will bring it closer to communities living alongside the route.

Piles of asbestos have been fenced off, covered and labelled as toxic near Albert Street, Granville. They have then been left lying inside work compounds for weeks, very close to residential streets.

A spokesperson for the WDA said that a “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.”

New Matilda has twice visited the site and observed holes in the coverings over the piles of asbestos waste.

As the ABC reported, residents were not informed about the find as it was within the ‘boundaries of the project’.

WDA told New Matilda that discoveries of asbestos are “not uncommon.” The Environmental Impact report for the M4 widening project did state that sampling revealed some asbestos, however, this information was buried in an appendix and received no publicity. More asbestos seems to have been found than predicted.

After New Matilda first saw the asbestos in Granville, we tried to ring a listed ‘environment complaints’ number on an asbestos pile. The number turned out to be a personal phone that was unanswered. Although the site notice is branded Leightons (the company contracted for the widening project), we were not permitted to speak to a company representative as WestConnex impose strict limits on direct communication between their contractors and the public.

A spokesperson for WestConnex later told New Matilda that staff come and go and “the number has been updated and the appropriate contact number made available.” When we visited a week later, the number had not been changed. When we drew this to the attention of WDA, a spokeswoman replied, “Signage around the M4 Widening site includes contact numbers for key project personnel. These numbers are reviewed and updated regularly.”

New Matilda is aware that asbestos was also found earlier in the year in Adderley Street in Auburn, close to where children walk to nearby Auburn North Public School and the next door childcare centre.



No Answers From WDA On Legality Of Development Works

The Environmental Defender’s Office have not received a response to their letter seeking urgent information from WDA about its development work at St Peters. The WDA had informed the EDO that it is partly relying on old Council planning approvals for the Waste Disposal Facility.

EDO solicitor Elaine Johnson told WDA that none of the planning documents that they had reviewed “provide authorisation for any of the activities being carried out on the site” and that given the area is “highly populated”, the public is “understandably concerned when the materials being distributed and transported include harmful materials like asbestos.”

Johnson pointed out that the use of the site as a waste facility has ceased and so old Council planning approvals no longer apply. She also asked for information about how development works comply with the EPA Act.

Further questions have also been raised about authorisation for WestConnex drilling operations in the suburbs of Haberfield and Ashfield. Residents of an Ashfield apartment block forced WestConnex to abandon drilling on their property on Thursday after it failed to convince them it had legal authority for the works.

Paul Whitehead is one of several residents who refused to let WestConnex contractors start drilling on the site. “I received a non-personalised letter from WestConnex saying they’d be performing a geotechnical survey within one of our communal areas,” he told New Matilda

“I couldn’t believe WestConnex could simply march onto private property and set up a drill next to 175 homes.

“I knew I couldn’t look myself or my family in the eye if I did nothing about this, only to find ourselves living in chaos in a few years’ time if the road went ahead. So I told the contractors they couldn’t start work until they’d proven they had approval to do so”, he said.

The contractors produced an email from the strata’s executive committee, which Whitehead said had not been approved by residents.

The contractors agreed to leave until further clarification came through and later told residents they would not be returning.

WestCONnex Action Group Haberfield spokesperson Sharon Laura hailed this as a small victory, “WestCONnex has repeatedly failed to prove it has the authority to carry out these works, and this was yet another example of them trying to run roughshod over residents in their rush to build this $15.4 billion sham,” said Ms Laura.

“This is not the first time we’ve shut down or delayed work on WestConnex – and it won’t be the last. The Baird Government and contractors like Leightons can expect more costly delays the longer they keep trying to ram this secretive and destructive road through.”

Questions about the WDA’s competence in the planning stage of this project come at a bad time for WestConnex, currently in the process of dissolving into the Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC). The man presiding over both the WDA and SMC boards, Chairperson Tony Shepherd announced last week that he is resigning from both. Shepherd told Fairfax he was departing because the WestConnex project was moving from the planning to the construction stage. In fact, there is still no business case or planning approval for the major WestConnex Stages – the M4 and M5 tunnels or M4 M5 link.

Wendy Bacon and Cathy Peters have both been involved in campaigns against the WestConnex.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.