Specialists warn of coal terminal health risk

PUBLIC health specialists have labelled the $5 billion fourth coal terminal proposed for Kooragang Island a ‘‘significant threat’’ and called for a more thorough assessment of dust and noise effects on residents.

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In a joint submission to the NSW Department of Planning, Nick Higginbotham, Ben Ewald, Graeme Horton, John Hall, Abul Hasnat Milton and Mark McEvoy, all with the University of Newcastle’s School of Medicine and Public Health, said air quality modelling done for the ‘‘T4’’ proposal made ‘‘unsafe assumptions’’.

It was among five flaws they identified with the project’s environmental assessment report, which is on public exhibition.

‘‘T4 will not burn coal but the noise and dust from it will contribute to an unhealthy environment that will lead to people getting sick,’’ Associate Professor Higginbotham said.

The Port Waratah Coal Services project is needed to meet the demands of the booming coal industry, and entails coal-loading berths on the north and south sides of the Hunter River near the Tourle Street bridge.

It would boost the Port of Newcastle’s annual coal export capacity by 120 million tonnes, adding to the terminals at Kooragang Island and Carrington.

The six health professionals, whose views do not represent their employers, said the assessment did not consider projections of more extreme heat days that would exacerbate dust levels escaping from the site, and assumed dust suppression practices would be followed without fail.

It ‘‘underestimates significantly’’ what actual pollution levels would be from new developments earmarked for Kooragang Island, including the planned expansion of Orica.

‘‘It is therefore difficult for us as well as many community members to place trust in the information on projected pollution levels promised by these operators,’’ the submission said.

The T4 environmental assessment ‘‘downplays the significant adverse health risks from fugitive dust emissions’’, diesel engine exhaust and noise from the sharp increase in rail movements the project would create.

The submission estimated residents near the rail corridor could expect at least 108,000 coal train movements a year by 2022, with T4 contributing nearly 40,000.

‘‘Our main objective is to draw to the attention of the communities in the Valley what the increase in rail traffic will mean so they will have a chance to ask the government to properly model the emissions that will come from this,’’ Associate Professor Higginbotham said.

This would have implications for future planning near the rail corridor.

‘‘There was a story in the [Newcastle] Herald this week about aged care for baby boomers right next to the university. That site is 500 metres or less away from where all the trains go into Kooragang, ’’ Associate Professor Higginbotham said.

Rail noise of 60 decibels at night would extend from 320 metres from the tracks to 370 metres, and compared to a European standard of 40 decibels.

A ‘‘proper best practice health impact assessment’’ was needed, the experts said, to ensure the effects on vulnerable people such as children and the elderly were properly considered.

The terminal proposal is expected to be delegated to the Planning Assessment Commission to determine.

Coal services chief executive Hennie Du Plooy said it was important that all interested groups had a say on the proposal.

‘‘This particular submission provides a certain perspective on specific environmental and health matters, some of which relate to T4 and some that relate to the coal chain at large,’’ he said.

“[Coal services] is confident that the environmental case for T4 stacks up, and we are obliged to let the impartial assessment process take its course in a comprehensive, holistic, balanced and objective manner.”

Residents have until May 7 to make submissions.

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