By Olivia Sanders, Gabe Connolly, and Zoe DeKoning
It’s almost impossible to grow up in Australia without hearing the words ‘slip, slop, slap’.
The public health campaign motto promoted habits to reduce rates of sun exposure-related illness and has been touted as ‘one of the most successful cancer prevention campaigns’ with melanomas in teenagers and young adults dropping by 5 per cent every year between 1996 and 2010, according to Melanoma Research Victoria.
Now, an air pollution crisis has health experts sounding the alarm and calling for another major nationwide campaign.
In 2018, air pollution accounted for 1.3 per cent of Australia’s total burden of disease (years of healthy life lost), while high sun exposure accounted for less than 1 per cent, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
A recent study published in Science Direct has also found a link between air pollution exposure and poorer cognitive function in adolescents and middle-aged adults.
Public health PhD candidate Clare Walter said most people don’t have the resources to inform themselves on the issue, and ‘would love to see a national campaign about air pollution to increase public awareness’.
‘I’d also like to see a team of experts across the fields of pollution modelling, health, and risk assessment, that can be deployed for public benefit for these types of projects across Australia to protect the public’s interest,’ Ms Walter said.
The matter is of particular concern for residents of Melbourne’s western suburbs, who experience some of the worst air pollution in Australia.
In 2014, an Environmental Justice Australia report ranked two Maribyrnong suburbs 7th and 8th highest for air pollution concentration in the country.
The report pointed to the high volume of diesel trucks traversing the area and nearby industrial estates as leading causes.
These issues have only gotten worse in the years since.
How did the situation get to this point?
While Ms Walter notes that the western suburbs has some of the most engaged and effective community groups, she says ‘it still hasn’t been enough’ to prompt government action.
She says despite the efforts of community groups, the average resident doesn’t understand the full scope of the air pollution issue.
Rosa McKenna is the president of Better West, a resident group based in Spotswood which formed in opposition to the West Gate Tunnel.
During the planning of the West Gate Tunnel Build Rosa served on the Community Liaison Group (CLG) for 18 months. She says members outlined critical flaws which risk the health of local communities and says since construction began on the West Gate Tunnel more than six years ago, ‘constant disruptions’ have brought a slew of new issues to light.
‘There have been times when people couldn’t even get out of their driveways to get to work,’ Rosa said.
While some locals have been offered ear plugs and gym vouchers, Rosa says getting ‘real compensation’ for property damage or health impacts isn’t easy.
The project also never had any form of voluntary acquisition, ‘so there was no way that you could get out of it,’ Rosa says.
Transurban and CPB Contractors & John Holland joint venture representatives note that ‘space within the project area is being used efficiently to avoid acquisition of residential properties’.
However, Rosa says the communication has been a disaster. ‘Nobody would say that it’s been very effective’.
‘You’d have to ring the Big Build number and tell your story again and again and again … and the person you get on the end of the line has no idea where Spotswood is.’
‘I feel fully powerless and demeaned by the experience of having to continually fight for something that is reasonable, we’ve had to fight even to be able to use the word ‘respite’.’
‘We understand that we need to have progress but it could have been handled so much better,’ Rosa says.
Health of school children at risk
Road closures and detours associated with tunnel construction have led to more cars and trucks on roads near schools.
Local primary school teachers’ union representative Kristen Kosowski says it’s become ‘so unsafe’ that many parents won’t let their kids walk to school anymore.
‘I’m not putting the blame onto the truck drivers themselves,’ Kristen says, ‘but they’re just so big, and kids are so little.’
Friends often tell Kristen that the air smells and feels different in the west, but she notices it most on hot days when the air seems to ‘change colour’.
‘I don’t know if we’ve become complacent because we’re so used to it,’ she says, and wonders if the region’s ‘very safe’ Labor seat has anything to do with inaction.
‘Labor knows it’s safe, so they’re thinking okay, maybe we don’t have to work as hard in this area,’ Kristen said.
‘Our roads are shocking, we have people dumping stuff, we have people letting off fumes at night because they think it can’t be seen, but it can be smelt and it’s just chaos around the West Gate Tunnel Project.’
Maribyrnong Truck Action Group (MTAG) President Martin Wurt got involved with the group almost immediately after it was founded in 2006, to try and ‘do something’ about pervasive truck presence in the area.
The group blockaded roads calling for action to reduce air pollution which, according to Martin, garnered MTAG the reputation of being ‘ratbags’ but also led to media attention which helped MTAG ‘get to the table, to sit with politicians and talk about solutions,’ Martin says.
Their work convinced the Brumby government to initiate the East West Needs Assessment which came up with solutions for the truck issue.
In 2008 the Eddington Report proposed a Truck Action Plan, which recommended ‘targeted road improvements that form an effective bypass around residential areas, reinforced by local truck bans’ with work to commence within two years.
The plan involved construction of new links connecting the West Gate Freeway to Hyde St to ‘significantly reduce’ truck presence but was scrapped when the Baillieu Government came into power in 2010.
After almost 15 years of consulting with governments Martin is frustrated with the lack of action.
‘Promises are made … but there’s such a big divide between what’s promised and what you actually see on the ground and what’s delivered.’
The state government touts the West Gate Tunnel Project as a solution to reducing truck presence in the inner west suburbs. Footscray MP Katie Hall says the tunnel will improve air quality by reducing the number of trucks on local roads.
Hall also worked with Williamstown MP and Minister for Trucks and Roads Melissa Horne to secure a $20 million commitment from the state government to fund a ‘suite of reforms to try and improve air quality.’
$15 million of those funds will go to a truck upgrade program giving truck operators $20k to replace older, dirtier trucks with emission efficient trucks.
But MTAG President Martin Wurt says it isn’t enough. ‘You’ve only got to have a look at the price of trucks … It seems like there needs to be more of an incentive.’
The federal government updated its Vehicle Standards in February 2023 requiring heavy vehicles supplied to Australia for the first time on or after 1 November 2024 meet Euro VI (6) standards.
But heavy vehicles currently registered will not be affected by the new regulations and can remain on the road without retrofitting.
Maribyrnong Council released an Air Quality Improvement Plan in August 2022 before declaring air pollution as a Health Emergency in July 2023.
The plan includes ‘targeted tree planting to create active walking paths to schools, and the promotion of the State Government’s Air Quality Improvement Precincts (AQIP) Grant Program to local businesses.’
RECOMMENDATIONS TO REDUCE AIR POLLUTION
The Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group made 26 recommendations to the state government to reduce air pollution and associated health risks.
These are some of their solutions to air pollution in the western suburbs.
Tunnel Air Filtration System
Despite Inner West Air Quality Reference Group recommendations the West Gate will not be fitted with a filtration system.
Instead fresh air drawn in from the tunnel entry is pushed through the tunnel by the movement of vehicles and jet fans, and out of the ventilation structure into the atmosphere.
A West Gate Tunnel Project spokesperson said an ‘internationally recognised air dispersion model was used to assess the design and height of the ventilation structures to achieve effective and safe dispersion.’
They said ‘the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) considered the design of the ventilation system and potential air quality impacts in the relevant approvals for the project. EPA determined that filtration was not required and that the ventilation system will comply with all EPA Victoria requirements.’
But a filtration system would reduce the amount of pollution particulates expelled from the ventilation stacks over the inner west by around 2 per cent.
‘Which isn’t a lot,’ says MTAG President Martin Wurt, ‘but for a community that’s already heavily impacted, that 2 per cent reduction is a big reduction.’
Maribyrnong Council has ‘written to the relevant Ministers advocating for the inclusion of ventilation pollution equipment as part of the West Gate Tunnel project prior to completion.’
Clean Ports Program
The Maribyrnong City Council Air Quality Improvement Plan and the Inner West Air Quality Community Reference group have both called for the implementation of a Clean Port Program.
With the Maribyrnong City Council Air Quality Improvement Plan noting similar schemes at California ports ‘resulted in a 90% reduction in toxic diesel particulate matter emissions from trucks in four years, and a 97% reduction over 10 years.’
The Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group suggested actions could include establishing air quality improvement targets, financial incentives like cheaper berthing fees for ‘cleaner’ ships.
It also recommended environmental charges, bans or restricted access for more polluting vehicles, and ‘on-shore electrical power so ships do not need to use diesel generated power while berthed.’
According to a June 2023 media release, ‘Port of Melbourne set a target to achieve net zero emissions for Scope 1 and 2 for port operations by 2030,’ but does not factor in emissions produced by the Port’s larger supply chain, which in the 2022 financial year accounted for over 99 per cent of emissions associated with the port.
Low Emissions Zone
Maribyrnong Council says they are ‘urging the State Government to introduce an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in identified areas of our municipality.’
This would lead to a blanket ban on high polluting vehicles in densely populated areas and gives governments the power to fine businesses and individuals who exceed the pollution limit.
LEZs have been implemented in many countries but the most notable is the ULEZ of London. Imperial College of London senior lecturer specialising in environmental health Dr Ian Mudway said ULEZ ‘brought about a reduction in diesel emissions which we could never have predicted.’
‘A clean air zone is simply a series of fines …The entire motivation is to accelerate fleet turnover,’ he says. ‘The only thing which consistently comes back as demonstrating what will work is the implementation of a clean air zone.’
Spotswood/South Kingsville residents group Vice President Christine Harris is a strong advocate for an LEZ and believes an LEZ would ‘give a far better result than filtration of the ventilation stacks.’
Increasing Rail Freight
The Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group recommended the Victorian government ‘increase the volume of freight carried on rail’ to help keep trucks off roads.
According to the 2050 Port Development Strategy, metropolitan trains can carry up to 84 containers, while regional trains can carry up to 200 containers.
So increasing rail freight would help keep B-double trucks off local roads, while transitioning train fleets from diesel to diesel-electric hybrids would reduce emissions.
This is an important consideration because the planned Port of Melbourne expansion will increase freight and container transport to, from and through the inner west.
The 2050 Port Development Strategy forecasts ‘port traffic could grow from 11,000 trucks per weekday in 2016 to 34,000 in 2050.’ This could be reduced to 20,000 weekday trucks if increased rail freight and improved truck productivity are implemented.
Though the Inner West Air Quality Community Reference Group notes ‘the increase will still be almost 100 per cent.’