Alarm over coal dust

Cathy Burgess and Ras Berghout of the Coal Terminal Action Group distribute flyers in Newcastle.
Cathy Burgess and Ras Berghout of the Coal Terminal Action Group distribute flyers in Newcastle.

Nurses have joined a Newcastle-based community campaign to warn of the health hazards from increasing coal shipments.

A plan to build a fourth coal terminal in Newcastle Harbour has prompted local nurses to join a community campaign warning of the health risks from coal dust.

The Stockton branch of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association has called for action to address health issues related to coal dust pollution, and the union’s statewide Committee of Delegates has endorsed the call.

The proposed fourth terminal, known as T4, is to be built next to existing coal loaders less than one kilometre from the Ageing, Disability and Home Care service’s Stockton Centre, which houses about 400 people with intellectual disabilities.

NSW Health has raised serious questions about the environmental assessment of the T4 Project and expressed concern that neither the Health Ministry nor Local Health District was adequately consulted in the assessment process.

NSW Health said complaints about coal dust from residents of suburbs near the port had increased along with the expansion of Newcastle coal export facilities.

Newcastle’s coal export capacity has almost tripled from 77 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) in 1997 to 210 Mtpa in 2011. If approved, T4 will be capable of handling another 120 million tonnes of coal per annum.

The Stockton branch of the NSWNMA says the health of people living and working near coal mining, transport, storage and handling facilities, is potentially at risk from coal dust.

Branch president Michael Grant said NSW Health had expressed concern that particle pollution from coal dust already exceeded national standards in the Upper and Lower Hunter, while a study at one of the existing coal terminals showed an unexplained cancer cluster.

“These health concerns must be addressed before the New South Wales government approves a new coal terminal for Newcastle,” Michael said.

Another Stockton Centre nurse, Cathy Burgess, says local air quality improved for a time after the BHP steelworks closed in 1999.

“However with the massive increase in coal traffic and dust, air pollution now is at least as bad, if not worse than when the steelworks were in operation,” Cathy, a resident of the suburb of Stockton for almost 20 years, said.

Cathy is a member of the Stockton Community Action Group, one of 16 Newcastle and Hunter Valley organisations united in the Coal Terminal Action Group. She says T4 coal stockpiles will be uncovered, resulting in more dust blowing onto Stockton Centre and suburbs.

T4 will also result in 52 additional, uncovered, 90-wagon coal trains travelling in and out of Newcastle every day, and more coal dust and diesel pollution in suburbs along the railway.

T4 is a project of Port Waratah Coal Services (PWCS), which operates two of the three existing coal terminals. Major owners of PWCS are mining giants Rio Tinto and Xstrata and Japanese investors.

T4 will cost more than $5billion and requires state government approval. Federal government approval is also needed because the site is next to internationally significant wetlands and bird habitat.

Pollution monitoring

Particle pollution from coal dust is monitored at several locations in the Hunter Valley and regularly exceeds the national standard for coarse particles with a diameter less than 10 microns, which can lodge in the upper throat and bronchi, according to the Hunter Community Environment Centre’s Dr James Whelan.

He said the same monitoring stations also indicated that pollution regularly exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, which can reach down to the alveoli in the lungs.

“All particle pollution can adversely affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems and the latest WHO air quality guidelines identify fine particles as one of the most dangerous pollutants for human health,” Dr Whelan said.

He said community groups raised $6000 to conduct their own monitoring of air pollution up to 400 metres from the coal train corridor, because the environmental assessment done by consultants for the T4 project only studied pollution within 20 metres of the rail corridor.

“The University of Newcastle is still looking at the results but the initial analysis shows particle pollution levels above the national standard in most locations up to 400 metres from the rail corridor.

“This would pose a potential health hazard for many more residents than indicated by the T4 consultants’ limited study of rail corridor pollution.”

Dr Whelan said he was not confident the Planning Assessment Commission would recommend against the project but hoped it would at least impose tough conditions.

“The Planning Assessment Commission recently recommended against a mine extension in the Hunter Valley. The state government asked them to reconsider their decision and two government departments were asked to resubmit their arguments. One department switched its stance from opposition to support for the bigger mine.”

Meanwhile there is growing concern that while public health services in Hunter Valley mining regions are under increasing strain, these districts are being denied their fair share of tax, royalty and other revenue from the hugely profitable mining industry.

The October 2012 edition of The Lamp reported that the Hunter Valley local government areas of Singleton and Muswellbrook contribute more to NSW state government revenue than any other part of the state, while receiving the lowest level of government spending.

Singleton and Muswellbrook have the state’s highest rates of cardiovascular disease hospital separations.