Health before coal

Recent developments including a Chinese ban on “dirty” coal, a report on the Hazelwood mine fire and a health industry super fund decision to restrict investments in coal, have brought concerns about the effects of coal on health to a wider Australian audience.

The health industry super fund HESTA has become the first major super fund in Australia to restrict its investment in thermal coal across its entire portfolio.

“HESTA is of the view that new or expanded coal assets face the highest risk of becoming stranded before the end of their useful life,” HESTA’s chief executive Anne-Marie Corboy said. “It is not prudent, nor in the long-term interests of members, to invest in the expansion of these assets.”

In the same week as the decision, which followed similar moves by major investment funds worldwide, China announced a limit on the use of imported coal with more than 16 per cent ash and three per cent sulphur, from January 1, 2015, in a bid to improve air quality, especially in major cities such as Beijing and around Shanghai.

Analysts disagree on the effect this will have on the coal export industry and the wider Australian economy.

But several say that every step the Chinese government takes to tighten pollution controls is narrowing the cost-gap between coal and alternative energy technologies: which is bad news for coal.

Looking to alternatives

In March 2013 The Lamp spoke to Stockton Centre nurse Cathy Burgess, a member of the Hunter Valley Coal Terminal Action Group, about questionable health and environment assessments related to approval for a fourth coal terminal in Newcastle, known as T4.

Subsequently the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) heard evidence of widespread corruption in relation to T4. The NSW Planning Assessment Commission is holding public hearings into the matter.

Cathy says the Chinese ban will have an impact on exports from the Hunter Valley and it is clear from door knocking campaigns that more and more people, including miners, are aware of the health risks posed by coal mining and the need for re-training to work in other industries.

“We have a great port and a huge manufacturing base and it wouldn’t be hard for us in Newcastle to retrain our skilled workforce in making renewables because they have a lot of skills anyway.”

Earth Worker, a cooperative of trade unionists, environmentalists and small businesses, last year established its first business venture in Morwell, Eureka’s Future, which manufactures and installs solar hot water systems.

Earth Worker’s goal is to address the need for local job creation and training in sustainable industries.

“We’re working on getting them up to the Hunter as well,” Cathy said. “It’s a great idea of unions supporting other unions in transitioning workers to another, more secure job.”

Evidence builds

The recent inquiry into the Hazelwood mine fire in Morwell and a Climate Council of Australia (CCA) report on the effects of coal on human health, both point to factors that urgently need to be addressed.

The CCA reported that a review of air pollution and cardiopulmonary disease in Australia found air pollutants associated with an increase in cardiovascular and respiratory mortality and hospital admissions, consistent with international evidence.

Coal contributes to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the US – heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic respiratory disease – with 50,000 deaths each year attributed to coal-fired power generation.

Globally, air pollution from coal combustion accounts for more than 200,000 deaths per year.

A global study of health indicators spanning 40 years and 41 countries estimated that adverse impacts from pollutants produced from coal-fired electricity generation costs Australia $2.6 billion annually.

US economists estimate that the cost to health of coal-fired power is between one and six times the value it adds to the economy.

The CCA has called for consistent air, water and soil quality monitoring in the vicinity of every coal mine and power station in Australia, and funding for research to evaluate the health, social and environmental impacts of coal in coal mining communities across Australia.

CCA also called for proper consideration of coal’s human health risks in all energy and resources policy and investment decisions.

Community harmed

An official inquiry into the Hazelwood mine fire found that from February 9 to March 25, 2014, smoke and ash resulted in a number of adverse health effects for the residents of Morwell, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, some of whom may continue to be affected into the future.

Many people also experienced financial impacts for a range of reasons.

The inquiry heard that people with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions were particularly susceptible to potential adverse long-term health effects when exposed to ozone, PM2.5 (particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter) and larger particulates.

In particular they are susceptible to an aggravation or progression of their underlying condition, an increased risk of lung cancer and potential effects on coagulation, which could result in an increased risk of arrhythmias, morbidity, hospital admissions and death.

There is also a risk that the general population could develop medium to long-term effects from the exposure to PM2.5 and ozone, including but not limited to the development of respiratory conditions, effects on cardiac conduction, increased risk of heart attack, stroke and lung cancer, long-term cognitive decline and psychosocial effects.

Pollutants emitted during the Hazelwood mine fire included carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic compounds, volatile organic compounds, dioxins, furans and metals.

Particulate matter is a complex mixture of very small particles and liquid droplets that can combine to make dust, soot and smoke. Exposure to both PM10 (particulate matter that is 10 micrometres or less in diameter) and PM2.5 has been linked to adverse health effects.

At Morwell, pollution levels (primarily PM2.5 and carbon monoxide) were significantly above the advisory standard on February 15 to 18, 21 to 25 and 26 to 28. On February 16 the daily average for PM2.5 was approximately 28 times the advisory standard and carbon monoxide levels almost four times the compliance standard.

The inquiry also found that State Control Centre’s initial request to the Environment Protection Agency for support and advice came too late and that the EPA was ill equipped to respond rapidly.

Image credit: CFA Communities & Communication