Fourth Newcastle coal loader a public health menace, says forum

The Coal Terminal Action Group hosted a public forum on August 21, with several expert speakers opposing the proposed fourth coal loader for Newcastle, known as the “T4”.

Georgina Woods, senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said T4 was not “just another coal terminal … It is part of a long process of continual expansion that will more than double coal exports with an extra 120 million tonnes and 107 extra trains per day and destroy an internationally listed wetlands.

“Coal is an industry that is on its way out: but these firms want the infrastructure in place so they can make their last buck. Investment in coal is declining, and last year, for the first time, investment in renewables was greater than investment in coal.”

Professor Peter Orris, Director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois, described some health effects of coal dust. He said the dust made up of fine particulate matter is the most toxic. The fine matter ranges down to nano-sized particles that reach further into the body and could result in early death, aggravated asthma and cardio-vascular conditions. The elderly and children are at extreme risk.

Fine particulate matter can aggravate underlying conditions and vulnerabilities. There are numerous trace elements in coal — such as mercury, cadmium, beryllum and arsenic — that pose no risk when underground. But they are dispersed when coal is extracted and transported. For instance, mercury leaches into lakes and rivers and enters the food chain through fish, with serious neurobiological effects.

Fiona Armstrong, convenor of Australia’s Climate and Health Alliance, said health should be a core issue in climate change negotiations.

She said: “Health professionals have a responsibility to campaign for an end to fossil [fuel] use — not just for its effect on climate change but for the direct harm they cause.”

Armstrong said Australia’s use of coal to generate power results in health costs of $2.6 billion each year. But when the total external costs are calculated, the total cost rises to $8.3 billion a year. She referred the audience to the recent report Our Uncashed Dividend, which describes the health benefits of cutting carbon pollution.

The meeting agreed on several resolutions that confirmed the rejection of a fourth coal loader in Newcastle. It demanded a meeting with local state member Tim Owens and planning minister Brad Hazzard, called for the covering of coal wagons and said governments should move to set national standards for fine particulate matter pollution.