June 8, 2011 The Age
Imagine 7000 huge trucks roaring past your front door every day.ON JUNE 27, the residents of Yarraville and the inner west celebrate a dubious anniversary. Ten years ago on that day, the Environment Protection Authority measured air quality on the now notorious, Francis Street. This was in response to concerns voiced by residents about the levels of truck traffic and associated diesel fumes that had increased exponentially following the completion of the Western Ring Road and CityLink in the 1990s.
The number of trucks using Francis Street had increased to the point where it was, and remains still, blighted with about 7000 trucks every day. Many of these trucks exit the West Gate Freeway and use Francis Street as a short cut to the port; many more head to the port from container terminals just west of Yarraville and use the entire length of the street as a rat run.
Nearly all could access the port more quickly using the Bolte Bridge, but won’t because transport companies and drivers don’t want to pay tolls. This is having a devastating impact on the residents of Francis Street and other streets in the inner west.
Yet many Melburnians who have not been to the area still imagine it as part of an industrial zone adjacent to the port, and wonder why people have been complaining about the issue for so long. This image is far from the truth. Francis Street is a residential street lined on both sides with houses for most of its length. It also features a childcare centre and community centre, and has a primary school within a stone’s throw.
To imagine what life is really like for residents, you have to imagine waking every morning to a queue of trucks metres from your house filling two lanes and sometimes stretching for 300 metres, blowing black smoke as they edge their way towards the port.
You have to imagine not being able to get your car out of the driveway to take the kids to school because of this slow-moving wall. You have to imagine not being able to hang your washing out because it gets covered in black soot, and not being able to sleep properly at night for the roar of engine brakes and the clanking of trailers. And you have to imagine wondering whether these trucks are causing your child’s asthma.
The picture I paint is a daily reality for thousands of residents in the inner west, and in the 12 years I have lived in the area things have slowly worsened. At times the pollution is genuinely choking and this is reflected in the measurements taken by the EPA in 2001, which revealed some of the highest levels of diesel pollution ever recorded in Australia.
These levels regularly breach the EPA’s own intervention points and would lead to prosecution were they produced by a factory. At the time they were taken, they did lead to a flurry of activity by the Bracks government, which implemented night truck curfews.
But when the EPA returned a year or so later to conduct repeat air testing it found that the curfews, while helping to reduce truck numbers at night, had little effect on overall diesel pollution levels.
It might be expected that, armed with this information, the EPA would make a fuss, pressure government to fix the situation, and look into the possibilities of legal action. It would be reasonable to expect it to do the job it is charged with – protecting the environment.
The EPA has not acted and now 10 years have passed. And in that 10 years, nothing has been done about the trucks on Francis Street and Somerville Road, the trucks in Footscray, the trucks that arrive in ever increasing numbers and which are poisoning the inner west.
Should anyone think that that’s a little over the top, consider what we know about diesel pollution: the EPA itself says that there is ”no safe level of exposure to diesel fumes” and international studies suggest that diesel pollution contains the most carcinogenic substances known to man. The studies also suggest that the effects of diesel are most harmful to children. In addition, the Maribyrnong Truck Action Group commissioned a health impacts study in 2005 and found asthma rates for people living on Francis Street could be three times higher than those of other Melburnians.
A glimmer of hope for residents did appear a couple of years ago when the Brumby government, goaded by transport adviser Sir Rod Eddington, committed to building West Gate on/off ramps.
This measure would provide an alternative route for trucks needing to access the port and would take most of the traffic off Francis Street. It would also solve problems on Somerville Road and other affected streets, and is a solution that everyone appeared to agree on. Even the then shadow transport minister, Terry Mulder, seemed to support it. Disappointingly, he not has mentioned it since the election and has refused to meet with resident groups.
Even more disappointingly the EPA, which should be protecting, caring for and improving our environment, does nothing. It has never returned to conduct repeat air testing, has never issued a fine and has never made a public statement condemning this situation.
After so many years of government inaction, shelved studies and schemes that go nowhere, we need the EPA to stand up, show some teeth and say enough is enough.
Peter Knight has been a member of the Maribyrnong Truck Action Group for six years.
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