In a really good example of “community as journalist”, one of the residents has written this story for Crikey. It is a compelling read and one that should spark more than a few questions about what is going on at The West. Albert Park residents who suffered cracking from the compaction work for the Forumla One Grand Prix will know exactly what they are going through. Crikey visited one of the damaged homes in Northbridge and can vouch for the veracity of their claims. These cracks are huge, the damage bill for each home runs to about $20,000 and valuations are tumbling.

CRACKS IN THE WALL AND CRACKS IN THE WEST AUSTRALIAN

Published May 15, 2000

By Craig Crack-Clough

Man with a cracking house in Northbridge

As promised, this is ‘our story’ (though very much abbreviated). We are grateful that there are journalists ‘out there’ who are prepared to advocate on behalf of ordinary people like ourselves – people who are catapulted into the complex world of the unaccountable, vested interest and monopolies. I always knew that this world existed but never thought I would have to do battle with it.

Ours is a complex story – one that story started as a personal quest for compensation. However, we now believe the underlying political, environmental, and social issues are of crucial significance.

BACKGROUND TO PERTH’S BIGGEST ROAD PROJECT

The Tunnel Damage Compensation Group (TDCG) in Perth is a group of residents who live in the inner city suburb of Northbridge. Our homes are located in a heritage precinct which was deemed as requiring “the highest level of protection”. Our homes sustained severe structural damage as a result of the construction of the Northbridge Tunnel, a $400 million-plus project that commenced in 1997 in spite of wide scale community opposition.

This Tunnel was a 60’s project (championed by Charles Court) that was resurrected in the 90’s by his son Richard Court, Premier of Western Australia for the past seven years. It is an underground tunnel that cuts through the centre of Northbridge – the heart of the city – linking the west to the east. From the outset this project has been coloured by very questionable processes.

In 1995 the Department of Environmental Protection took only 24 hours to assess the environmental impact of the project and reach the incomprehensible decision that this $400 million project only required an informal environmental assessment. The person undertaking the review of this major project was a junior clerk.

EMPTY PROMISES: APPEALS DISMISSED

The residents of Moir and Brookman Streets made known their concerns regarding the impact of the dewatering of the then proposed Northbridge Tunnel on their homes prior to the commissioning and the building of the tunnel. In the past, nearby construction on a much smaller scale had demonstrated that dewatering could cause significant damage. The fact was that our homes were significantly at risk of structural damage as they were built on peat and sensitive to dewatering. This issue was extremely pertinent as this tunnel was being built in an area where the water table was only three metres below ground level and consequently dewatering was a core component of the construction. The history of our local area made it very evident that large scale dewatering had the potential to cause severe damage to the Moir and Brookman Street homes. Residents also raised concerns regarding the total absence of any formal environmental impact assessments prior to the project being undertaken. The then Minister for Planning and Heritage, the Minister for Transport and the Minister of the Environment assured residents in writing that they had no cause for concern and that our homes would be safe.

There were 64 formal appeals to the Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to informally assess the project. All of these appeals were summarily dismissed by the Minister for the Environment, Peter Foss, on the grounds that the successful tenderer, as part of the tender process, would have to submit a detailed Environmental Management Plan (EMP). It was said this would have to satisfy Main Roads WA (MRWA) that they could find engineering solutions to address all the environmental concerns. In 1996 Baulderstone Clough Joint Venture (BCJV) was awarded the contract to build the Northbridge tunnel. (SM: Incidentally, Baulderstone is a German company and its Australian arm is chaired by former NSW Liberal Premier Nick Greiner. They also did very well in Victoria under Jeff Kennett.)

THE FIGHT FOR JUSTICE

A group of 12 residents have spent the last 2 years engaged in a fight for fair compensation for the damage to our homes. For the past 12 months we have undertaken a comprehensive search for documents to prove the negligence that we always have suspected in relation to the environmental management of dewatering. We now have in our possession documents obtained (with great difficulty) from MRWA under the FOI Act. These documents clearly demonstrate that MRWA was negligent in failing to ensure that BCJV fulfilled its obligations under the terms the contract. This contract, that cost the taxpayers of WA $1 million, required BCJV implement a comprehensive Environmental Management Plan (EMP). BCJV did in fact produce such an EMP as part of the tender process. However, BCJV failed to implement fundamental aspects of EMP that related to dewatering, including premonitoring of water levels in sensitive areas such as ours, preventative works, ongoing monitoring of drawdowns and any related subsidence, comprehensive community consultation and liaison in affected areas to name but a few.

ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT PLAN DOWNGRADED

The dewatering commenced in January 1997. The first complaints regarding subsidence were made in July 1997. We have now discovered that in August 1997, only a few weeks later, BCJV significantly downgraded the EMP by deleting all sections of the EMP that related to strategies they had a contractual obligation to implement but had failed to do so. MRWA oversaw and permitted this downgrading. By February 1998 the homes of the majority of the residents (36 in total) in the precinct had been affected. The damage was in many homes substantial: floors were sinking; walls with cracks so large that you could see through walls from one room to another, or into the adjoining home or outside; doors no longer closed; built in cupboards warped and concrete floors cracked.

INDEPENDENT HYDROLOGICAL REPORT

After an eight-month media campaign in 1998 MRWA was forced to call for an independent hydro-geological report into the effects of the dewatering.

This was the Woodward Clyde report (September 1998) which supported residents claims and indicated that: – the dewatering had had a significant impact on ground water levels

– the dewatering had contributed to the damage sustained by the Moir and Brookman Street homes

– there had been absence of pre-construction monitoring

– there had been a failure to monitor, the ongoing impact on groundwater levels on these and neighbouring areas, as well as the damage occurring in homes, during the construction

– This lack of monitoring data meant it was difficult to be conclusive about the dewatering and the subsidence in the heritage precinct.

– there should be a program of such monitoring instituted

 

The report’s recommendations were not only ignored but were also initially withheld from us. MRWA oversaw the removal of these recommendations from the ‘final report’. Only after the questions were asked in parliament were we given a copy of the recommendations. Main Roads made no attempt to implement the recommendations in spite of the fact that the report stated that there was still an opportunity to ascertain with greater confidence the link between the dewatering and the cracking in our homes if a monitoring program was instituted.

We believe that MRWA was negligent in failing to ensure that the recommendations were implemented. The conduct of MRWA raises serious issues given that:

– MRWA knew that they could be party to any litigation by the residents, does their conduct in removing the recommendations from the final report, then trying to withhold the recommendations and finally not implementing them suggest a deliberate attempt on their part to ensure that residents were not provided with scientific data that would prove their claims?

– Surely the conduct of MRWA is further evidence that MRWA does not have the capacity the ability or the independence to oversee environmental assessment processes.

– The Woodward-Clyde recommendations are also strong evidence that the Main Roads should not have permitted the downgrading of the 1996 EMP, namely they should not have permitted the removal of the very monitoring strategies that Woodward-Clyde stated were essential and should be instituted.

In late 1998 the dewatering continued and so did the damage to our homes.

COMPENSATION AND DEEDS OF RELEASE

MRWA instead forced the Tunnel Contractor to enter into a process of negotiating so-called ‘offers of goodwill’ to the residents. This process was experienced by the majority of residents as abusive and a farce. The residents entered into this process in good faith only to find that the apparent disregard for independent, comprehensive assessment that has coloured all stages of this project from conception to construction was clearly evident.

BCJV refused the residents reasonable request that an independent assessor be appointed to carry out the structural inspections and assessment of rectification costs.

In addition BCJV so restricted the scope of damage to be assessed offering to make only cosmetic repairs when it was clear that in a large percentage of homes the damage sustained was of an order that clearly suggested that the structural integrity of the homes had been compromised.

Lump sum offers were made to those who had had inspections with no itemisation of how the costing had been done. The building company, employed by BCJV to give the quotations, stated that if they carried out the work they could not guarantee the work. This was further evidence of the fact that the amounts offered would not in fact rectify the damage.

Essentially residents were offered small amounts of money to do cosmetic repairs and in return had to sign away their rights to further legal action against Main Roads and BCJV. Two thirds of the residents signed, the majority felt they did so under duress. The remaining 12 residents decided to continue their campaign for justice, embarking on the search for documents under FOI (see earlier section).

POLITICAL ACCOUNTABILITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT

There are significant questions of public accountability and process with regard to a number of issues namely:

– the protection of the environment and heritage;

– contracting by MRWA and their responsibility to ensure compliance with publicly championed standards performance;

– the lack of Ministerial accountability with regard to the sanctioning and approval processes for projects of this scale when it can be proven that the undertakings given were not implemented;

– Ministerial assurances to protect the interests of community and the failure to do so;

– the apparent collusion of the MRWA in sanctioning negligence on the part of a private contractor viz BCJV;

– deliberate attempts by the MRWA to deny public scrutiny and avoid accountability;

– The manipulative tactics employed by officials of the MRWA and BCJV in attempting to avoid liability.

 

THE STORY BREAKS BUT “THE WEST” IS SILENT

Two months ago we finally obtained some of the documents we were searching for under FOI. MRWA continues to play games telling us that “they can neither confirm nor deny the existence” of a whole list of documents that we have requested. We began contacting the media to tell our story in the lead up to the opening of the Tunnel on the 22nd April, Easter Saturday.

The Australian’s posters in Perth on April 14 screamed out “Tunnel Secrets Unearthed” and billed it as an exclusive. The Perth Page was devoted to the uncovering of damning documents by a group of Northbridge residents whose heritage homes were damaged during the construction of the Northbridge Tunnel. Colleen Egan of the Australian has given excellent coverage to the ‘unearthing’ of documents that show that Main Roads WA stood by while tunnel contractors Baulderstone Clough Joint Venture did not fully implement the Environmental Management Plan and also secretly downgraded the Environmental Management Plan two weeks after the first complaints of cracking by residents. The Australian has covered our story on April 14, 15, 17 and 22. Today Tonight (Channel 7) provided a good synopsis of what is a very complex story. All the TV news channels have covered the story, with the rally opposing the tunnel at the opening being covered broadly.

What conclusions are we to draw when the West Australian newspaper refuses to cover one of the major stories that broke 3 weeks ago? We are appalled and disturbed by their silence.

The only mention of the controversy was a vague reference in the West on 22/4/00:

“Press releases criticising the project continued to arrive in news rooms last week and even today’s opening is expected to see several long-standing opponents join forces to try to rain on the Government’s parade”

Well how about letting the public of Western Australia know what these releases were?

A political commentary in the West by Anne Burns (West Australian Friday 28th) was stunningly hypocritical. “Absent Labor needs all guns firing” read the headline. How could they possibly criticise Labor for being silent on the issue of the Tunnel when we know that they were refusing to print the Opposition Ministers’ press releases?

The silence in the West Australian is very disturbing to say the least when we have the Opposition calling for an independent inquiry into Main Roads. Is this petty jealousy that the Australian got the exclusive? Surely not, the story is still unfolding. Is it just a co-incidence that Harold Clough is on the board of WA Newspapers. With the new editor beginning at the West on the April 17 we were hoping for more. What about the simple principle of ‘the public’s right to know’. The contrast of the 10-page lift-out from Main Roads carried in the West on 20/4 was glaring. We always knew that the West has the monopoly on the flow of information into the public arena but we now have first hand experience of how they can use this monopoly to manipulate public consciousness.

So, the cover-up continues.

Peter Fray

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