Is the air around us fit to breathe? It’s a basic health question for anyone living in a major conurbation – which is most of us these days.
For a rapidly expanding city such as Ballarat, the query carries even more weight. Population experts expect the town to swell by more than a third in the next 20 years, reaching more than 144,000 in 2036. Managing the extra pressure on the environment will be key to a livable Ballarat.
Many have a broad but vague sense that in regional Victoria, we are within wafting distance of good country air, away from Melbourne’s sprawl. But that feeling is disconnected from any recent data or evidence.
Indeed Ballarat’s air quality has not been monitored by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) for almost 13 years – specifically since August 2006 – a little-known fact pointed out in a damning report published by the Victoria Auditor General last year.
Nicola Rivers of Environmental Justice Australia has called for the EPA to monitor Ballarat at least every three years to ensure air pollution remains manageable and that any emerging issues can be addressed.
“People living, working or going to school near significant air pollution sources should know what they are breathing in,” Ms Rivers told The Courier.
“The EPA should be taking it into account when assessing new industrial development, or siting sensitive uses such as childcare centres or schools next to main roads.”
The issue of air quality monitoring came under the spotlight late last year in Ballarat with the controversy over the stench from the new Miners Rest sale yards – and its absence affects many other major regional centres. With the exception of LaTrobe Valley – a hub of the coal industry – and Wangaratta, there are no monitoring stations outside of Melbourne. The EPA in its own recommendations in 2001 said every major urban area with more than 25,000 residents should be monitored regularly. It has never followed its own guidelines.
Since the last time air quality was measured in Ballarat new pollutants have been added to the watch-list – which have never been assessed – and air quality standards have tightened.
The Victorian Auditor General report included several recommendations – but there has been little tangible since. But with the launch of a State Government Clean Air Strategic review last year campaigners remain hopeful. Will the EPA gain funding for more monitoring – which they say they have requested for years – to keep tabs on our rapidly growing city?
A Victorian government spokesperson said: “We’ve invested over $180 million and strengthened legislation to provide Victorians with a modernised EPA, well equipped and resourced to address environment challenges, including air pollution.
Over 3,000 Australians a year die from the impacts of air pollution – this issue should have as much priority in Victoria as reducing our road tollNicola Rivers, Environmental Justice Australia
“We’ve already introduced stronger air quality standards to better protect the health and wellbeing of all Victorians and we will continue to expand and roll out the fixed air monitoring network.”
For Ms Rivers, change is coming too slowly for Ballarat and beyond.
“Both the EPA and the State Government need to commit to reducing air pollution in key parts of Victoria,” she said.
“The State Government has promised a Clean Air Strategy for Victoria, but it has not been released yet.
“Over 3,000 Australians a year die from the impacts of air pollution – this issue should have as much priority in Victoria as reducing our road toll.”
The auditor’s view
The Victorian Auditor-General's office released its report, "Improving Victoria's Air Quality" in March last year. The 93-page study heavily criticised EPA.
It said: “Contrary to the intent of its 2001 Ambient Air Quality NEPM Monitoring Plan Victoria (Monitoring Plan), EPA has failed to provide a better understanding of air quality outside the Port Phillip and Latrobe Valley regions.
“It has not updated nor adjusted the plan over the last 17 years to reflect the changing risk profiles that accompany both considerable population growth and changes in industrial activities across the state.”
The report highlighted EPA’s “inaccurate assessments”, which overstated air quality – although it said mistakes were infrequent.
The report included recommendations for EPA to update its knowledge of Victoria's air quality, improve reporting and produce easily accessible annual reports.
The Victorian Government began consulting on its new clean air strategy last May and held a summit in August. The release of a Victorian Air Quality Strategy is due later this year.
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