Health and coal growth

CUMULATIVE impacts of coalmining and coal-related activities in the Hunter are what coal companies and governments have traditionally avoided discussing.

Instead, each new project has typically been considered as if it was happening in isolation, against an environmental and public health background more or less unaffected by existing operations.

This flawed approach should have been shelved many years ago, since, as the scale and density of the coal industry has increased, it has become much more difficult to separate impacts attributable to particular components of the region’s massive coalmining and handling chain.

That is one the important points made by six Hunter public health professionals in their submission on the application by Port Waratah Coal Services to build a new coal loader on Kooragang Island.

Viewed in isolation, some impacts of the proposal might seem easy to quantify. But when put into a wider context the situation becomes more complicated. One obvious point, for example, is that a massive increase in coal-loading capacity at the port of Newcastle will make viable a proportionate increase in coal production. That means more mines, expanded mines and busier mines, adding to already appreciable impacts on communities.

To feed the loader, more trains will run. That means more dust and more noise for the length of the already busy rail chain, from Newcastle to the Upper Hunter and beyond. The effects of diesel-powered engines, hauling massive loads of coal around the clock through regional towns and city suburbs, are already appreciable.

According to the health professionals, train movements will triple in some places and they warn that the coal loader’s environmental assessment may have taken too narrow a view of the likely cumulative dust and noise impacts.

‘‘By 2020, residents near rail lines will be exposed to an almost continuous intrusion of train noise and vibration,’’ the submission states.

As a significant beneficiary of coal royalties, the state government will be anxious to approve the coal loader without delay. It is up to Hunter people to ensure that the most stringent measures are applied to minimise the impacts identified by health professionals.

Given the importance of cumulative impacts, it has now become imperative for the community to demand that those stringent measures are not merely imposed on the new portion of the operation, but are retrospectively applied to its existing components.

THE east branch of the Health Services Union is almost certainly as dysfunctional and worthy of being placed into administration as Julia Gillard’s Labor government asserts. But one wonders at the wisdom of the government’s vocal attacks on the union, which sit so oddly with its ambivalent approach to Labor MP Craig Thomson, who led the union for so long.

As the opposition’s Eric Abetz asked so pointedly, if the union deserves to be sidelined for its alleged shortcomings, where does that leave Mr Thomson?

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