One year on from the bushfires, group urges government: Bring back air monitors

A community campaign to get the state government to restore the Blue Mountains Air Watch program is being escalated after government inquiries on last year's bushfires heard about the effects on communities that lacked air monitoring data.

Blue Mountains Council passed an urgency motion at last month's meeting seeking for the restoration of the Blue Mountains Air Watch Project. The mayor will again write to the Minister for the Environment Matt Kean urging for his intervention. Council is also hoping neighbouring bushfire affected councils - Hawkesbury, Lithgow and Wollondilly - as well as the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils will campaign for the return of the monitoring.

The Blue Mountains Lithgow Air Watch project was always planned as a 12 month operation and ended in May this year. It only came about after concerted community campaigning.

A NSW EPA spokesperson said earlier this year the aim was to provide a better picture of air quality in the region across all seasons. It found air quality was generally very good and complied with standards for both particulate and gaseous air pollutants.

The summer air quality monitoring at the Katoomba compliance station in Valley Road between 1st December 1 2019 and February 29, 2020 showed air quality in the region declined significantly in December 2019 due to bushfires, and improved over subsequent months.

Cr Don McGregor's told the council meeting that the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the health impacts of the recent bushfires noted the evidence of health experts - more than 400 deaths occurred, and more than 4000 people were admitted to hospital due to bushfire smoke from the 2019/2020 east coast bushfires. He said a need for real time information on local air quality was illustrated by the 50,000 hits on the EPA Air Watch website during the height of the fires when a significant decline was recorded in air quality.

Blue Mountains Unions and Community group spokesman Peter Lammiman said they would be campaigning in the lead-up to the 2023 state election to get the air monitors back so they can continue giving real time air quality data whether from the effects of fires or impacts from the Great Western Highway and freight trains.

"We are calling on the minister to meet local community representatives to hear why we believe KOALAs (Knowing Our Ambient Local Air Quality) are a sensible investment for all residents and tourists inside and outside of fire seasons. In this way we'd joining similar air monitoring on the Central Coast and Hunter Valley," he said,

"During the catastrophic fire season, the air monitors regularly recorded hazardous air quality giving Lithgow and Blue Mountains residents vital near real time information. A number of local schools cancelled outdoor time for students for weeks in December 2019."

The project collected air quality data using one temporary compliance air quality monitoring station at Katoomba and 11 low-cost air quality solar powered sensors, called KOALAs, in Katoomba, Lithgow, Wentworth Falls and Springwood.

Mr Lammiman said monitoring data saves lives.

During the summer fires, daily averages (24 hours) for air pollutants such as PM2.5 and PM10 exceeded air quality standards on 31 and 27 occasions respectively. During the period, PM2.5 peaked at over 17 times the air quality standard and PM10 peaked atnearly nine times the standard.

But all of the monitoring equipment had to be returned. A final report has not yet been released.

Mr Lammiman said he was disappointed they were back to the situation where there was no monitoring between St Marys and Bathurst and had only one year of information to go on.

Asthma Australia also gave evidence at the NSW Inquiry stressing the need for more air quality monitoring stations across regional NSW. The Australian Medical Association has said the length and density of smoke exposure is a new and possibly fatal health risk that many people within our community have not previously had to face - health risks of compounded exposure to smoke, heat, fatigue, and stress.

The group has had the support from Doctors for the Environment, the Lithgow Environment Group, the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, NSW Nurses Association, Blue Mountains Teachers Federation Branch, the Lithgow Mayor Ray Thompson and MP Trish Doyle. Information for those wanting to take part in a petition to restore the project is at l.ead.me/airwatch and the Facebook group is Blue Mountains and Lithgow Airwatch. Mr Kean's office was contacted for comment.