Plans for Sydney’s 2nd Airport threaten World Heritage wilderness

BC Airport flight paths

Flight paths (yellow) over the northern sector of the Blue Mountains National Park, converging over Blaxland.

As you can probably tell from my deliberately slightly inflammatory heading, I started out writing this as a call to arms.  Something a little like this: Guys! In case you didn’t know, they’ve dug up the zombie proposal to build an airport in Western Sydney again and it’s going to affect the Blueys! But the more I’ve read into the process and history of the Badgery’s Creek (BC) proposed airport site, the more fascinated I’ve become.

So this is not a call to action – although if you are concerned about the fact that under the current proposal flights will be swinging in low over small towns in the lower Blue Mountains, their engines joining in the symphonic buzz of bees over the  largely pristine wilderness in Glenbrook, you can find info about actions you can take here:

http://www.clearbluesky.info/
(get in before Dec 18th)

But yes, this is less of a call to action than a sharing of my brief foray into the history of the Badgery’s Creek site and recent developments.

A new airport for Sydney. Well, Kingsford Smith is pretty busy so it seems fair enough. And it’s not the first we’ve heard of it. If you’ve been around longer than me you might have heard about it in the 60s, when BC was earmarked for future use as an airport, or in the 80s when Bob Hawke decided it was time and BC was the site, before backflipping and building another runway at Kingsford Smith.

The first I heard about it was in the 90s when it came close, really close. The Howard government was chipping away at the BC airport plan. At the same time the Blue Mountains was applying for World Heritage status, and UNESCO repeatedly turned it down – World Heritage status wasn’t compatible with the proposed airport some 8km away. In particular, they were concerned about ‘the risk of airborne fuel emissions, visual intrusion, and predicted aircraft noise of 70 to 80 decibels as “adversely affecting the natural quiet” of the Blue Mountains area’. (SMH 20150103)

In the end the Howard government abandoned the airport plans and the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA) was established just a couple of weeks later. This has been a really positive thing for Blue Mountains tourism, especially nature-based tourism (which-full disclosure-is what I do for work).

This October a draft Environmental Impact Statement was released – the BC airport was up for discussion again. Quite suddenly it seems, and I wondered why.

Whatever the reason, it’s suddenly super-important. According to Lucy Turnbull (who’s she? The Prime Minister’s wife), the very future of Sydney depends on it: ‘We have to understand that the future success of Sydney lies very substantially in achieving and realising the potential of Badgerys Creek.’ (SMH, 20150910)

Yowza. Better hop to it. But again, why? I wonder if it might have something to do with the fact that some pundits say the marginal seat of Lindsay – which covers a massive part of Western Sydney – could be a key to the Liberals’ success in the next election. The airport promises an astronomical investment in the area, lots of jobs, more public transport and generally more vim and vigour.

This is at once cynical, logical and irrelevant. It doesn’t matter too much why they’re suddenly talking about it now if we agree that Sydney probably does need a new airport. The question becomes – why here? And I’m going to skip that one so I can spend time on this: what are the deficiencies of the current proposal? What can we do to hold the relevant authorities accountable? And what can we do to make sure the process is as transparent as possible?

After the draft EIS was released an engineering firm (interestingly, the same one that drafted an EIS for this exact project some 17 years ago) was employed by a group of 11 councils in the Western Sydney/Lower Blueys area. The firm’s job was to read through the EIS and provide some feedback.  If you read this report, which I can’t recommend because it’s 234 pages long, you’ll find a general air of dissatisfaction.

The firm devoted several paragraphs of their report to the limitations they faced in trying to write a thorough review: there was no site inspection; no meeting with the project team who drafted the report; a limited turnaround time of only 3 weeks for their draft review, and a general lack of transparency around the results of specialist technical reports about noise, air quality and transport, ie: they didn’t have the info they needed to make an informed, independent assessment. This isn’t even feedback on the airport yet hey. This may be typical of this kind of process, but it was an eyebrow-raiser for me.

Reading on, the report seems to comply with most of the requirements of a report of its kind. For example it’s correctly formatted (nailed the font and line spacing guys, nice) but when it comes to analysis, assessment and mitigation of the potential negative impacts of the airport (human and environmental), it fell short.

Here are the key things about the draft EIS that I think are worth knowing/asking:

1. Night flights. No curfew. It doesn’t make sense to me that Kingsford Smith retains its curfew while this BC doesn’t have one.

2. Merge point. All flights converge over Blaxland, a small village in the lower Blue Mountains. Why? And why weren’t any alternatives presented in the report?

3. Human health. Why did they do a Health Risk Assessment instead of a Health Impact Assessment? I don’t know, but a quick online search suggests that the HIA is more appropriate for a project of this nature.

4. Noise pollution. How come Aussie pollies aren’t concerned about the 70 decibel noise, but UNESCO officials are? What does this actually mean?

5. Impacts on the GBMWHA: Under the World Heritage Convention, the Commonwealth Government has an international obligation to ensure the identification, protection, conservation, rehabilitation and presentation of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA) and its transmission to future generations. Does this airport compromise that?

6. General omission and lack of transparency. The process seems rushed and key impact factors have been glossed over. If this is truly one of the biggest infrastructure projects Australia has seen in decades (some compare it to the construction of the Harbour Bridge), shouldn’t we take the time to get it right?

I’m really glad that we’ve got until December 18th to mull over this draft EIS, talk it out and try to find answers to the many questions.

Again, if you feel like acting, this website can tell you how: http://www.clearbluesky.info/.

It’s worth thinking about because whatever the decision, people born today won’t know about it. They’ll just look around and see the way the world is. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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