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Issue #1547      16 May 2012

Public health group slams Newcastle coal loader proposal

A group of public health professionals have prepared a critical report on proposed construction of the Port Waratah Coal Services Terminal 4 (T4) loader dock in Newcastle, which would handle more than one third of Newcastle’s coal exports.

Construction of T4 is crucial to the mining companies’ plans to increase coal exports from Newcastle to 331 million tonnes per annum, which would triple coal train movements to and from Newcastle, posing major health risks from noise and atmospheric pollution for residents.

More than 30 towns or suburbs between Newcastle and Narrabri would be affected. Some towns would experience 108,000 train pass-bys each year (39,344 going to or from T4), one every 4.9 minutes, and 135 nightly pass-bys between 11 pm and 7am (32 added by T4).

The existing rail noise already exceeds 40 decibels, the 2009 European standard for night time noise. The environmental assessment prepared for the T4 proponents admits that 60 decibels will be experienced at night up to 370 metres from the tracks. That’s enough to cause chronic sleep disturbance, which is associated with increasing heart rate, cardiovascular illness, hormone level changes, insomnia, increased medicine use, fatigue, accidents, reduced performance, depression and mental illness.

A flawed assessment

The group maintains that the assessment failed to allow for the cumulative impact of fugitive coal dust emissions. The assumed noise impact zone was only 20 metres from rail tracks, but should have been 300 metres. The assessment disregarded diesel pollution from train engines returning to mine sites, residual coal dust in unloaded wagons and emissions from coal dust track rail accumulations.

The assessment failed to deal with risks arising from short-term exposure to diesel exhaust. Diesel exhaust is classified as a probable human carcinogen. A study of Sydney’s M4 tunnel linked diesel exhaust to increased risks of asthma, chronic pulmonary disease and influenza, and to respiratory problems for healthy people who use the tunnel every day for one or two years.

Nor did the assessment examine impacts on the health of vulnerable groups, including children, aged care residents, and people suffering respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Low income earners and the elderly, who predominate in many areas affected by the T4 proposal, are particularly vulnerable.

The health care report stated: “The (assessment’s) review was at best superficial and distorted the findings of several studies that were cited.” For example, to support the argument that coal dust does not cause cancer the assessment cited a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study. However, that study actually states: ”Lung cancer has been suspected to arise in coal miners because of their exposure to crystalline silica dust, which is a Group 1 carcinogen”. Another study rejected by the assessment but supported by the group associated coal mining with heart, respiratory and kidney disease, as well as birth defects.

The group cast doubt on the assessment’s assumptions regarding emissions of coal dust during coal loading. The anticipated weather conditions were based on 2010 weather patterns, but Hunter Valley council studies found that dry winds, extreme heat and severe storms along the east coast are likely to increase, leading to a rise in emissions.

The assessment assumed that best possible coal handling practices would prevail, making no allowance for uncontrolled emissions from human error. It cited emission control measures at other industrial sites – including the infamous Orica plant, which has been plagued by the release of toxic fumes!

A global impact

The health care group points to the global impact of increased coal exports from T4 for coal-fired power generation. The group’s report states:

“T4 provides the necessary conditions for burning 120 Mtpa (millions tonnes per annum) of black coal, producing 298.6 tonnes of CO2 or 55 percent of Australia’s current emissions, and almost twice NSW’s total emissions. (That) is about 60 percent of the CO2 … added to the atmosphere in 2010 beyond the 2009 levels. This is a significant contribution to the health damaging effects of global warming … produced through greenhouse gases.

“… the public health costs of treating disease caused by coal-fired electricity is between 0.8 and 5.6 times the value of the electricity produced. … (The) Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering estimates that the monetary costs of damages to health due to the pollution from coal- fired power stations in Australia is $2.6 billion per annum, or $13/MWh (megawatt hour).

“The T4 coal is destined to be burned in foreign countries and we are concerned that the health burden will fall on the population of these countries. The 120mt (million tons) of T4 coal when burned will create costs associated with pollution damage to human health of $11.7 billion.”

Community opposition

The health care group maintains that the T4 proposal should be subject to a comprehensive health impact assessment, with the participation of health professionals and community representatives, and that sound barriers should meanwhile be constructed along rail routes. The mining corporations are certain to oppose these recommendations, implementation of which would reduce profits and delay the T4 project – and might even derail it.

Fearing widespread opposition to their operations, the corporations are operating as fast as possible. Huge open-cut mines are being hacked into the beautiful Hunter landscape. The fertile ground is cracking or subsiding because of underground mining operations. Surface and groundwater resources are in jeopardy.

Many retirees who have moved to the Hunter find that their homes are within mining exploration lease areas, and that they could end up next to new open-cut mines or coal seam gas extraction facilities. If they decide to sell up and move elsewhere they’re likely to find that the value of their properties has plummeted because of falling demand for real estate in their area.

It’s not surprising that Hunter Valley residents are rising in revolt. The Newcastle health care group’s report on the T4 proposal is of major importance in opposing the T4 proposal and the wider ambitions of the rapacious mining industry.

Contributors to the report by the Newcastle public health professionals’ group are doctors Nick Higginbotham, Ben Ewald, Graeme Horton, John Hall,
Abul Hasnat Milton, and
Mark McEvoy.  

Next article – Rights dragged from the grasp of the ruling class

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