The Coal Terminal Action Group this week launched a community-led dust and health study, following the application by Port Waratah Coal Services to construct yet another coal terminal in Newcastle (T4).
For many years, communities living around the port, along the coal train lines and near the mines have been calling for the NSW government to do the research to find out what health impacts all the coal dust and diesel emissions are having on them.
Government and industry have thus far failed to act to protect the community, so it falls to us to seek answers to these questions for Newcastle residents: (1) What level of fine particle pollution are we currently exposed to? (2) What are the health impacts of existing levels of fine particle pollution? (3) To what extent does coal from train wagons, coal piles and handling contribute to this pollution? (4) How will fine particle pollution levels increase if twice as much coal is transported from the Hunter if T4 is approved?
If T4 is approved it will mean another 120 million tonnes through the port per year and 92 extra train movements per day. Yet Port Waratah Coal Services and the Environment Protection Authority claim the project will have no significant health impacts. This beggars belief.
We have found significant flaws in the dust assessment in the Environmental Assessment for T4, including only modelling dust movement for up to 20 metres away from train lines. Anyone living near coal train lines knows the dust travels a lot further than that and many are worried about what it is doing to theirs and their children's health.
There is a well-established correlation between fine particulate matter in the air and respiratory illnesses and the Environment Protection Authority has failed to protect the community against increasing levels of coal dust — instead they are siding with industry.
There has been much talk of covering coal wagons to minimise dust. Steel or fiberglass covers are world’s best practice, but industry and some local politicians have been quick to recommend spray veneers. This is the lowest cost option, likely to be used as a trump card to hoodwink the community as the number of trains passing continues to increase.
Trials of latex veneers on coal trains in Central Queensland showed a 50-90% reduction in dust. But what about the ultrafine particles of less than 1 micron, the hardest to control and which are absorbed into body tissues?
What about the massive coal stockpiles, loading the ships and diesel exhaust from trains and equipment? You cannot veneer or cover those. We need to first understand the amount and nature of particulates in our air, how far into our suburbs particle pollution is reaching and how people are being affected.
The study will collate and evaluate existing air quality monitoring data from the EPA, Newcastle City Council and industry. This will be the first time Newcastle has had a “one stop shop” for air quality information for the local airshed as a whole.
We also intend to commission independent testing to characterise ultrafine particles. We are fortunate in Newcastle to have access to many independent experts and researchers.
The community steering group overseeing the study will regularly seek their advice. We will engage with the broader community and make the results of our study public, unlike the Environment Protection Authority and industry, which keep their studies under wraps and in tight control.
Given that Newcastle is already host to three coal loaders and the health impacts of these terminals are unknown, the assessment process for T4 should be put on hold until the community can be adequately protected from current pollution levels.
Port Waratah Coal Services says there will be no additional employment following construction, yet local residents will have to put up with 92 more trains every day and a lot more dust and noise, whether or not wagons are covered.
Quite apart from these health impacts, a new coal loader would mean the destruction of precious Ramsar-listed wetland habitat, an additional 15 large open cut coalmines in the Hunter Valley and Liverpool Plains, and an additional 288 million tonnes of CO2 when exported coal is burnt, further fuelling global climate change.
[Zoe Rogers is a spokesperson for the Coal Terminal Action Group, which is made up of 14 Hunter community and environment groups. The group will host a free public forum at 6pm, Mayfield East Public School on August 21 about coal dust and its health impact. For details email firstname.lastname@example.org.]