Making some noise

I have been spending my last few days on a little fight against government bureaucracy.

The Queensland Department of Main Roads is planning to upgrade a motorway close to my house. They are adding two extra lanes and building another bridge down the road — the second Gateway Bridge — and this large arterial road is predicted to get twice as much traffic in the long run.

This extra noise would affect a large number of houses in my area. We already have an inconvenient amount of noise in our houses because of that motorway, and any more would certainly become really annoying.

Although surely there are lots of places much noisier than our area, the residents of this area certainly would prefer it to be quieter, as we have learned from speaking to our neighbours. Besides, the only appreciable source of noise we have is from that particular road. This is the acoustic equivalent of a blinking light in a corner of your bedroom. Which is much more annoying than the equivalent intensity coming from everywhere at the same time.

The most affected part is the park down in the end of my block, next to the motorway, the Boorabbin Picnic Grounds. Luckily, we can’t see the motorway from the open areas of the park, because it is concealed just behind the small patch of forest, but the noise makes sure you can’t ignore its presence.

One of the nicest spots in this park is next to the Bulimba creek. You can walk right down to the creek, and there is a nice natural environment there. It would be really pleasant, if you didn’t have to cope with the trucks passing by. This is one of the areas where the Gateway Motorway gets closest to the Bulimba Creek, which flows towards the Brisbane river and is the main creek in a relatively large catchment area southeast of Brisbane.

As the Bulimba creek catchment coordinating commitee explains,

South East Queensland and Brisbane is the fastest growing region in Australia and also is one of the most biodiversity rich areas of Australia. You can hop off a plane in Brisbane and within 20 minutes you could be discovering a remnant natural area with intact original ecosystems and wildlife. This is unique for a modern capital city in today’s world.

The little remnant of natural forest in that patch seems to be almost pleading us to turn the volume down. And even if they can’t express their concerns in that way, it is certain that would-be picnickers feel the same way.

So you would imagine that when upgrading the motorway, and making it even closer to the park than it already is, Main Roads would automatically consider that the least they can do to compensate for the inconvenience is to put some noise barriers up. Having noise barriers is already common practice in other spots in large freeways that cross residential areas. But attending an information session about the upgrade project, Shana and I found that the noise in our area was “within the criteria”.

Of course I had to ask what the criterion was, because it seemed that putting noise barriers would be the right thing to do in that case. The Main Roads person politely explained that they didn’t know exactly, but someone did a noise assessment according to the Code of Practice of the department, and found that the houses and our park were predicted to stay below the noise level required to make Main Roads consider noise barriers.

It seemed perfectly unreasonable to me, and I couldn’t imagine that the criterion for a Queensland Government department would get it so wrong in this case. So I asked for the data that was used in that analysis. It seemed to take the guy some minutes to understand or believe that I actually wanted to look at the data.

I asked if he could send it by email but he said it was “too big” for that. I asked if he could make it available online but he thought it was too big for that too, he would have to give me a CD. I can’t understand how putting some files on the web is “too hard”. All it would take was some hard drive space in some government server with a link from the Department’s webpage. The files were even already separated into small pdf’s, which should make the job of downloading them easier for those with lower connection speeds.

But the difficulty in making government documents public seems to be correlated with the sensitivity of the data. So the guy said he would have to send it through the usual snail mail. It would take too long, I thought, and after some negotiation he agreed to leave it in my post box himself the next Monday.

I have a lot of experience marking lab reports for physics or engineering undergraduates, and if this Environmental Noise Assessment report prepared by Heggies PTY Ltd for the Department of Main Roads was being handed in for marking, they would probably fail the course. Looking at the actual data you can see that the park was actually not only above the magic number from Main Roads’ Code of Practice, but in some parts of it, especially the most interesting part close to the creek, it was screaming way above!

The report tried to justify the lack of noise barriers by saying that the park was in the range of 62-65 dBA and that “at least 65,000 square meters” of the park was below the criterion of 63 dBA (in a certain measure of sound pressure). Not only it was clear from the actual data from their computer model that none of the park was below the criterion of 63 dBA, but that the range was actually around 64 – 71 dBA, with the highest levels being in the most interesting and more naturally preserved area of the park, where the creek runs. What’s more: estimating from Google Maps, the park has a total area of about 60,000 square meters! How can it be 108% below the criterion!?

So we decided to do something and collected signatures from more than 130 residents in our area. We talked to our local Member of Parliament about that, and he supported our submission and talked to the project team at Main Roads. They seem to have gotten embarassed by the error and will request Heggies to explain their noise assessment. I personally think there’s not much that can be explained, just a few things that can be corrected.

Even beyond our small case, by looking at the relevant Code of Practice from Main Roads, and looking at the Queensland’s Environmental Protection Act of 1994 we’ve found that the two of them, to quote a great Australian movie I’ve seen recently — The Castle — have completely different “vibes”. And just as in The Castle, the difference in the vibes can actually be put in some more or less convincing legal lingo.

Shana and I sent a detailed submission about the case to the project team, carbon-copied to the Minister for Main Roads and other Queensland Government Ministers. We are waiting for an official response, but I think it sounds pretty likely that at least we’ll get the noise barriers.

And who knows, maybe we’ll even help improve Main Roads’ Code of Practice to make it more environmentally responsible.

In any case, I think the whole episode gave me a very interesting experience of how it is not so hard to change things if we only care and do something about it. It is an interesting change from the mostly contemplative academic life.

Let’s see where this one goes.

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9 thoughts on “Making some noise

  1. I understand that The Department of Main Roads codes of practice and the guidelines in the environmental protection Act have liitle relevance as part one, the first stage of a road linking Warrego to Brisbane called the “Kenmore bypass” is due to cut through Kenmore and take noise levels past DMRs code of practice. Due to the nature of the construction they have deemed that noise barriers (although required) are not going to be constructed.
    The Department of Main Roads acts as if it can do whatever it wants and who ever they report to are not paying attention.

  2. Hear hear!

    Excellent work Eric and Shana 😀 It sounds like DMR or Heggies were just downright dishonest in this case and you two certainly have the combined expertise to do something about it. Well done!

    Also I know how persistent you can be… poor main roads guy 😉
    ~Chris.

  3. Ian, I know which road corridor you’re talking about. That sounds absurd! Did you try to look up the actual report in which they explain exactly why noise barriers won’t be raised?

    There are rules for these things, and even though of course the rules are flexible to allow for some common sense, they are not really that flexible to allow them to do what they want! Main Roads has a “General Environmental Duty” to “enhance and protect” Queensland’s environment, including the acoustic environment.

    According to the Environmental Protection Act, “a person must not carry out any activity that causes, or is likely to cause, environmental harm unless the person takes all reasonable and practicable measures to prevent or minimise the harm”. This includes the government.

    So Main Roads can’t allow the noise to increase, and even should attempt to minimise the existing noise, unless they can convince you that it is not reasonable or practicable. They can’t simply appeal to a magic number in a rulebook, unless they further convince you that this magic number captures what it means to be reasonable and practicable under all circumstances.

    Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Policy for Noise (EPP(Noise)), which aims “to achieve the object of the EP Act in relation to Queensland’s acoustic environment”, states that some of the environmental values to be protected and enhanced are
    “…the qualities of the acoustic environment that are conducive to—
    (a) the wellbeing of the community or a part of the community, including its social and economic amenity; or
    (b) the wellbeing of an individual, including the individual’s opportunity to have sleep, relaxation and conversation without unreasonable interference from intrusive noise.”

    To achieve this goal, the EPP(Noise) specifies an “acoustic quality objective”, which is “the objective of achieving an ambient level of 55 dB(A) or less for most of Queensland’s population living in residential areas”.

    So Main Roads has a General Environmental Duty to take all reasonable and practicable measures to enhance and protect the wellbeing of the community or part of the community as regards noise from roads, and to achieve the acoustic quality objective of the EPP(Noise).

    Now there is a provision in the EP Act that defines things like public road or airports as a “beneficial asset” because they are useful for the whole community. Main Roads tries to inflate the meaning of this term to avoid having to be responsible.

    But even for “beneficial assets”, the EP Act intends that “so far as practicable, any significantly adverse effects from their use or operation be progressively reduced.”

    In other words, a road being a beneficial asset does not excuse Main Roads from reducing any environmental harm as far as practicable.

    The EPP(Noise) declares some “planning levels” for roads, which are intended as guidelines for what maximum noise levels to achieve in this case. And it demands that when planning a road, the relevant authority “may have regard to any relevant planning level”, but it “must have regard to the acoustic quality objective and all the relevant circumstances for the particular case”.

    Main Roads regards the relevant planning level just to excuse itself from using it fully, and has no regard whatsoever for the acoustic quality objective.

    So these are some of the arguments. Main Roads can’t disregard the environment. If they are still doing it anyway, the people affected need to get their act together and fight them on their on turf, that is, by the laws. Just asking won’t make any difference, and they’ll always say it’s “within the criteria” until you go and check the criteria carefully.

  4. Chris, I prefer to believe they were just mistaken. But then I guess this means they will have to fix it and put the barriers.

    And of course, I would also like to see their Code of Practice being changed.

  5. Of course, I hope they were just mistaken too, and I apologise for jumping to uniformed conclusions. If it’s just an oversight then presumably DMR will look into this and get it fixed up without too many issues. I remain surprised that they could come to the conclusions they did, given the data…

    Good luck getting this sorted out anyway.
    ~Chris.

  6. Good work Eric and Shana! I’m guessing their decisions don’t often get scrutinised by a lawyer and a physicist 🙂

  7. Chris,
    The DMR pre feesability study to the Kenmore Bypass acknowledged the high risk that the noise issue may become. I have a copy of that. The 2nd study just completed of which I have not a copy of is the document that as far as I understand states it is impractial to errect noise barriers (I shall pusue a copy).
    I also have a copy of the relevant EPA and taken snapshot DbA readings of the local environment and of the traffic on a road similar to the one proposed.
    With that very basic information DMRs intentions and disregard to the environment is obvious and the extent of the damage is alarming. I would be very surprised ifthe EPA was not being breached.
    This is a residential area where 85 house are to be resumed.
    You are correct that it is a matter to be fought on their own turf.
    Are you familiar with any similar such case or resources as I am quite prepared and happy to “check the crieria” as carefully as possible and do what is required to have their intentions scrutinised.

    The DMR is also going to erradicate a Koala habitat accoriding to independant expet Rick Natress but unfortunately the DMRs environmental expert failed to notice or report.

  8. Ian: I am not familiar with any similar cases apart from our own. I can send you a copy of our own submission. Perhaps it may be of help. Send me an email if you want it. It’s on the “about” page.

    You should also try to contact the Environmental Defenders Office: http://www.edo.org.au/. They may be of help.

    And you certainly should organise a community group in relation to that. No one will hear a single person or even just a few people on such a big issue.

    But of course each case is different. I suppose it would be pretty damn hard to stop the freeway altogether, but I think it shouldn’t be too hard to get them to put noise barriers, as that is a small fraction of the cost. Specially given that they are building it from scratch, it should be negligible in terms of cost. In our case it would be less than 1%, in your case it must be peanuts.

    And certainly, they have the duty to minimise the environmental harm as much as possible and reasonable. So if there are alternatives to achieve the same objective, they need to explain exactly why they chose this one and how they measured the environmental impact against the alternative costs.

    Perhaps they might be right that some mitigation measures are “unfeasible”, but you have the right for a good explanation of why it is unfeasible, who decided it, and what data they took into account to get to that conclusion. They’ll give all that info to you if you ask for it. Read their Environmental Assessment Report carefully, especially the part about noise, which was probably done by a third party. Read the relevant legislation. Try to find holes, mistakes, inconsistencies. That would be step one.

    All the best!

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