Behind all the masses of technical data, uncertainty and complexity, there are people and communities. Nicole Gooch interviewed Emma Pierce who lives in St Peters, not far from what Westconnex wants to turn into a massive tollway interchange.
Frankie and Thalia, 5, have grown up attending pre-school together. They played in the school playground most days when their older sibings were being picked up from school.The little girls were excited to be starting school together this year but their friendship is just one of many that has been cut short by Westconnex.
Instead, the community of St Peters is being torn apart as families, including Thalia’s , are forced to leave to make way for the Westconnex tollway.
Frankie’s mother, Emma Pierce, is a special education consultant and researcher. The family also have a nine-year-old daughter, and have lived in the same cul de sac for eight years. Emma, eloquent and energetic, says they felt “pretty fortunate” to be living in an “amazing little community”.
But if the Westconnex New M5 goes ahead, their front door will be 200 metres away from a Los Angeles style motorway interchange, and about 150m away from an unfiltered toxic emissions stack near the end of the New M5 tunnel.
Emma says these are “massive concerns”, particularly with fine particulate emissions from pollution stacks being touted as the modern asbestos. But its the thought of her daughter loosing her best friend to the Westconnex relentless appetite for houses that upsets her. “Lots of friends are having their houses acquired and not given the just compensation, that they deserve, and also people who are renting are forced out because they can’t afford to re-rent in the area where they’ve lived for a really long time.”
Concerned about the impact Westconnex could have on her community, Emma joined the campaign against it even before plans to force hundreds from their St Peters homes were announced in late 2014. Along with her friend Janet, she founded the Westconnex Action Group which quickly grew to include other residents. But, as she became more aware of the project, her concerns also grew to include issues around transparency and the “massive waste of taxpayers’ money”.
“It started off as something impacting on my backyard, but from there it became much, much bigger,” says Emma. “I was thinking to myself, this isn’t the Sydney I want to see, it isn’t actually even answering what it says it wants to be answering. People in western Sydney are being told this is going to be an answer, when actually they are going to be ripped off.”
‘There was no full business case released so there is no evidence to support this up to $17 billion project, which is being put forward to the public with no evidence, nothing to back it up. It seems crazy that based on no evidence you could spend $17 billion.”
While other cities have learnt from their mistakes and are now swapping polluting tollways for public transport, Sydney is going back to this archaic project from the 1950s, says Emma.
Westconnex Consultation is an ‘absolute joke’
Consultation has been an “absolute joke” too, says Emma, who argues that none of her experiences with the Westconnex information sessions would meet professional criteria for a consultation. She fears the sessions have been ticked off as “consultation sessions” when they are nothing but “information-giving sessions”, with no interest in actually discussing the communities’ needs.
“The sessions have been about presenting information which changes all the time, and also misinforming people – providing information without actually knowing the full story, so they won’t be able to actually answer people’s questions directly.”
St Peters public school, attended by Emma’s children, sits less than 200 metres from the future Westconnex interchange and even closer to the roads that will be widened to take thousands of extra cars that will pour each day from the New M5 tunnel. As a member of the schools’ Parents and Citizens group, Emma has had meetings with the Sydney Motorway Corporation, and various government departments, including the Health Department. But their calls for help came unanswered, says Emma.
“It felt to me that the Department of Health had their hands tied, and were not really able to give us a lot of information or support, which was a bit disappointing.”
2015 was a very long year for Emma and the other Westconnex Action Group members, culminating in a “pretty awful” summer. Campaigning against the Westconnex takes place in addition to work and a busy family life.
But Emma says she has no choice, and accepts this, even if it may not be fair. “It’s something I need to do. That’s mostly ok, but it’s also not fair that the community is put in a position where the only way they can be heard is to be incredibly vocal and persistent. It’s a big time commitment, and particularly this recent environmental impact assessment.”
The public consultation period for the M5 Environmental Impact Statement coincided with the Christmas and school holiday period. The statement is a seven thousand-page document – seven volumes of specialised information, and the deadline for submission is the 29th of January, just one day after school returns and before parents’ groups can meet.
“And of course lots of people are on holidays, or the experts aren’t around and government departments shut down for a few weeks. So that has been pretty unfair,” says Emma. “It’s legal, but unjust. That’s probably a good summary of this process actually, that things scrape under the barrel of just being part of the process, but in reality they are not good practice. None of the consultations have been good practice and the project certainly hasn’t got an evidence-basis behind it.”
Despite the stress of it, Emma is grateful for the way their fight against the new M5 tollway has brought the St Peters community together.
“The main positive is that our community has really banded together, we’ve met people we wouldn’t have met otherwise, and seen just how willing a lot of people are to give their time, and get involved and do things they never thought that they would do. That’s been fantastic experience really.”
Emma says she can’t see the fight stopping anytime soon. “The main push now is for as many people as possible to have their say and make any sort of submission about their concerns on the environmental impact statement for the M5. So that’s our big thing this month. I would just urge anyone with any concerns to get involved by making a submission, however brief that might be.”
You can support Emma and her family by supporting the Westconnex Action Group submission. You can add your own comments to give it a more personal feel. You can submit as many submissions as you like.