I was five kilometres from the track and could only pity those living closer, but at least by late Sunday afternoon, the Grand Prix was over for another year. The circus rolled on to the next stop, the stands were packed away and Albert Park and surrounds returned to comparative tranquillity.
Not so Phillip Island, home to the MotoGP and the World Superbikes. Long after Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa moved on after October’s big race, the noise continues.
The Phillip Island Circuit will be in use for 293 days this year. On 21 of those days, the noise level will be above 95dB(A). On 160 days, it will be between 75-95dB, described by the track operators as “quite loud”. On 112 days, it is anything up to 75dB, described as “moderate”.
Residents living within earshot of the track have just 72 “quiet” days, when the track is not being used by very fast and loud motor vehicles.
The nearest settlement to the track, Smiths Beach, is about a kilometre away but nowhere on the island is further than five kilometres away. When the wind blows from the south-west, Smiths Beach cops the noise. When it blows from the south-east, Ventnor cops it.
Noise from the racetrack has been a sore point on the island for many years. In 1989 Phil Wright and Anne Davie were elected to the Phillip Island Shire Council on the issue. They managed to get 18 noise-free weekends, which still apply, but in every other respect the problem has got worse.
Now a Bass Coast councillor, Phil Wright says the number of noisy days has crept up each year, from an initial six very loud days in 1988 to the current 181 “quite loud” or “loudest” days.
Anne Davie, who farms at Ventnor about half a kilometre from the track, says one of the major complaints is excessive noise over consecutive days and weekends. “We think that’s unfair.”
This February, for example, there were just four quiet days. Thirteen were over 90dB, including four in a row at 95dB, another seven over 80dB and two over 70dB.
In 2001 the Environment Protection Authority issued the circuit with a Pollution Abatement Notice because of excessive noise. The owner of the circuit was directed to undertake noise control works and the notice was revoked in 2007.
Anne Davie says she has no objection to the big events. In fact they tend to be quieter because all the people and equipment absorb some of the sound. The problem is all the other days, the 33 ride days (“enjoy the limits of your motorcycle in a safe and controlled environment”), the practice days for cars and motorbikes, the testing days, even the go kart days.
In 2010 the Phillip Island Conservation Society members met the EPA to discuss the impact on residents and wildlife. Long-time president Margaret Hancock says it was a waste of time. The EPA simply wasn’t interested.
She lives in Cowes, about five kilometres from the track, with Wimbledon Heights in between, but says that when a westerly wind is blowing it’s unpleasant to work in the garden or even be in the house.
“If one drives out to Gap Road to see what’s happening, there might be two to three cars or half a dozen motorbikes just driving round and round the track.”
She says few people object to the roar of race days – “if you live close to the MCG, you expect a bit of noise” – but they do object to the noise from testing, “from 9am-5pm, day after day”.
In June, in response to residents’ concerns, the council sought legal advice about responsibilities for noise from the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit. A report on the legal advice was released at this week’s council meeting.
Under the Environment Protection Act 1970 (Vic), the council doesn’t have powers or responsibility to limit noise, the report stated.
“However, under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic), it does have the duty to remedy, as far as reasonably possible, all nuisances considered offensive (ie. noxious or injurious to personal comfort) existing within its municipal district, except where the event is gazetted as a Major Sporting Event. The Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix is gazetted a Major Sporting Event.
“The legal advice received recommends that where Council believes the noise to be unreasonable it can notify EPA Victoria, who can investigate. This is considered to be the better and most cost effective course of action available to Council.”
It added: “Council must balance the investment attraction against the noise concerns”. It points out that the MotoGP is Bass Coast’s most valuable tourist event, contributing almost $20 million directly to the local economy and another $9 million indirectly.
The statement entirely misses residents’ concerns, which are not with the three days of the MotoGP, the three days of the World Superbikes or other big events, but with the run-of-the-mill ride days and sprint days, which now account for 160 days a year.
The council’s legal advice also misses the point. Race days at the track may be covered by Major Sporting Event legislation, but testing and ride days certainly are not.
The council report also advised that EPA Victoria had not recorded any noise complaints about the racetrack in the past two years and an EPA spokesman confirmed this to the Post.
But recording a noise complaint is almost impossible and most people have given up trying. On Good Friday this year, April 18, the noise at Smiths Beach was so bad that Phil Wright’s wife, Irene, called the EPA to complain. She was told it had nothing to do with EPA and she should ring the council.
The EPA website has hotlines for reporting pollution, litter, smoky vehicles and illegal dumping, but none for noise. And in fact, there are no mandatory noise limits for industry noise outside the Melbourne metropolitan area.
Cr Wright says the council’s economic argument also needs to be challenged. “The racetrack brings only half a million visitors to the island. Two and a half million visitors come for the environment.”
In the end, he says, there must be some sort of compromise, with less use of the track, protective barriers such as trees reducing the noise leaving the site, and quieter vehicles, as occurred during this year’s Formula 1 Grand Prix.
In 2007, the Victorian Auditor General, Des Pearson, did a cost-benefit analysis of the Australian Grand Prix, including “the cost” of the noise to the estimated 12,500 households living within a kilometre of the track.
Under the Australian Grand Prix Act, the Grand Prix is exempt from normal noise regulations but Mr Pearson said that did not mean there was no cost to residents. While the loss of enjoyment was difficult to quantify, he estimated a direct economic cost to the community of $237,143 as a result of reduced property values.
That was in 2007, for three practice and race days. It would be interesting to know what he’d make of a race track that operates 293 days a year.