Hunter coal dust health concerns

Issue 

An Upper Hunter community campaign for a full comprehensive health study on the effects of air pollution from coalmines and coal-fired power stations is coming to a head.

ABC TV's Four Corners brought the issue to national prominence with its April 12 screening of "A Dirty Business". It followed a series of articles published recently in the Sydney Morning Herald and local media outlets, the Newcastle Herald and the Singleton Argus.

The reports have focued on the large amount of dust emitted from mines and from two coal-fired power stations (Liddell and Bayswater) in the Singleton and Muswellbrook area. They document a corresponding trend towards higher rates of asthma, bronchial disease and other complaints.

The dust, tens of thousands of tonnes of which is released each year by the coal industry, contains varying levels of nitrous oxide, heavy metals including lead and uranium, plus arsenic, cadmium and other toxic chemicals. Its effect is compounded by many residents' reliance on tank water.

An April 12 SMH article said: "Five residents around a single block in Singleton have been struck with brain tumours, prompting fears that a cancer cluster has erupted in the heavily polluted mining town."

The current media exposure is a welcome change for those campaigning for the state government to conduct a health study into the region.

Calls for the study have mostly been ignored by the state government. Hunter MP Jodi McKay told Singleton campaigners the area didn't warrant a health study due to its "relatively small population", the SMH said.

The greater Singleton/Muswellbrook area is home to more than 40,000 people.

The cost of a study into the effects of coalmining and power generation on health in the region is tiny compared to the royalties the NSW government earns from mining and electricity generation, not to mention coal export earnings by mine owners.

Muswellbrook coalminer Peter Kennedy, who featured on the Four Corners program, told Green Left Weekly: "As a result of the program going to air, it would seem that [NSW] Premier Kristina Keneally has been shamed into ordering a study of cancer clusters in the Singleton township."

Comprehensive study needed

An April 14 rally at McKay's office in Newcastle demanded the study not be confined to looking at the suspected cancer cluster. NSW Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon told the rally that Keneally needed to "show some humanity [and] look at the cumulative impact of coalmining on the Upper Hunter in terms of health and the environment".

Media outlets reported that Keneally had not ruled out such a comprehensive study, but her government is trying to dodge the issue. If it happened, the study would confirm what is already widely known: the mines and power stations are toxic and make people sick.

This finding would have two effects. First, community campaigns would most likely demand more rigorous regulation of existing mines, power stations and coal processing and transport facilities. Second — more concerning from the perspective of mining companies and their stooges in government — is the viability of the industry itself would be called into question even more.

Calls for "no new coal" would grow stronger, as would calls to phase the industry out altogether.

Campaign to cut emissions

While campaigners in the Singleton and Muswellbrook areas have been ignored by government bureaucrats, grassroots climate campaigners from across NSW and around Australia have been familiarising themselves with the issue.

There exists the very real potential for a powerful alliance between local community health campaigners, trade unionists and the large and growing network of climate activists across the country.

The best way to cut dust also happens to be the best way to cut carbon dioxide emissions: leave the coal in the ground and create renewable energy (and jobs) instead.

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