Coal pollution cover-up in Newcastle

Coal dust in the Hunter Valley. Photo:

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) and Brisbane-based consultant Katestone have come under fire for releasing a report, on coal train dust in the Hunter Valley, that appeared to have been doctored.

The ARTC is a federal-owned corporation and leases rail track from the NSW government. It is in charge of most rail track other than dedicated inner city passenger rail corridors, including rail tracks that deal mainly in freight and commodity haulage.

A condition of its licence requires the ARTC to regularly test air quality on its rail corridors and check with the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) that environmental standards are being observed.

In the Hunter Valley, the Coal Terminal Action Group (CTAG — a coalition of 19 community and environmental groups) has been campaigning for more rigorous analysis of dust pollution from coal trains, and the implementation of controls (such as covering coal train carriages) to reduce dust.

The ARTC employed Katestone early this year to conduct airborne particle monitoring. The consultant placed a single industry standard “Osiris” dust monitor at a site in Metford and tested for two months. The monitor took “snapshots” of the air every six seconds, recording Total Suspended Particles and the subcategories of finer dust known as PM10 (dust 10 microns in diameter, about one-fifth the thickness of a human hair) and the even finer PM2.5 particles.

Dust in the PM10 range and finer is damaging to human health, causing and worsening respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

The on Friday May 31 and publicly announced that “loaded coal trains operating on the Hunter Valley rail network, when measured at Metford, did not have a statistically stronger association with elevated particulate matter concentrations than other trains”.

NSW EPA chair and CEO by saying that “the EPA will not consider imposing additional requirements on industry, such as covering of coal loads, unless clear evidence becomes available which demonstrates the need for further studies or measures to control coal dust emissions from loaded coal trains”.

However, less than a fortnight after the ARTC released its report, an anonymous source leaked an earlier version of the report, dated May 24, to CTAG and the Greens.

The leaked draft was drastically different to the final report given to the ARTC on May 30 and publicly released the following morning.

The changes include:

• Massive amounts of data were removed or recategorised. For example, in the May 24 version, the report outlined that in the two months of monitoring, 80,276 six-second units of data had been collected that were relevant to analysing the dust pollution from loaded coal trains passing the monitor. In the final version, the pile of data in this category was almost halved to 41,102. No explanation was given in the report’s methodology for why almost 40,000 units of data were suddenly removed or recategorised at such a late stage.

• The number of trains deemed “valid” by the authors to be to be included in the analysis was changed. For example, the number of loaded coal trains confirmed as valid for analysis dropped from 1423 to 916 and the number of unloaded trains deemed valid dropped from 1783 to 1109.

• Changes to the findings in the executive summary. The May 24 version said “loaded coal trains and unloaded coal trains were associated with a statistically significant elevation in particulate matter concentrations when compared with the concentrations recorded when no train is passing the monitoring station”. The published report said “loaded coal trains were not associated with a statistically significant difference in PM10 and PM2.5 concentrations when compared with the concentrations when no train is passing the monitoring station [emphasis added]”.

The Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC) between the May 24 and May 30 versions.

The HCEC said community groups have called for NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to set up a special commission of inquiry into the report.

CTAG’s Dust and Health Committee chairperson, Dr James Whelan, said: “This looks like a cover-up, and the truth needs to be established.”