COALMINING has always been a dusty business.
But while in times long past those most exposed to the dust of mining were the miners themselves, the colossal scale of the industry in the 21st century spreads the burden much more widely.
In the old mining towns of the Lower Hunter, families were necessarily familiar with the minute black particles that found their way deep into the pores of the miners’ skin, and the diseases of dust inhalation were commonplace and acute.
Undergound mines are now outnumbered by gigantic open-cuts whose production is measured in tonnages that would have been unimaginable not so many decades ago.
The coal is liberated from its overburden by blasting and earthmoving on an epic scale and the mighty trains that snake the length of the Hunter Valley to massive ship-loaders at the Port of Newcastle represent a logistical wonder of bulk material handling.
But while many aspects of coalmining have changed almost beyond recognition, the essential product at the heart of the operation is still the same black rock it was at the dawn of the age of steam.
It is a matter of public record that the process of mining coal releases tens of thousands of tonnes of fine dust particles every year into the air of the Singleton and Muswellbrook local government areas, creating a characteristic brownish haze and causing an unknown number of health problems for residents.
And as the tonnages of coal mined and transported to the port increase almost year by year, the number of people affected by coal dust shed from trucks and rail wagons increases in proportion.
In the past, this incidental pollution had been regarded as a relatively minor nuisance. But the enormity of the throughput of the Hunter Valley coal chain demands it now be taken far more seriously.
That’s especially the case because, as coal tonnages have grown, so has knowledge about the very fine dust particles that can work their way into the smallest capillaries of the human lung, raising the likelihood of cardiovascular disease and other medical problems.
If an 80-wagon coal train can shed more than half-a-kilogram of coal dust per kilometre as it rattles through the towns and suburbs of the Hunter, a simple arithmetic exercise can demonstrate exactly why both mining companies and government authorities should, before now, have minimised the hazard.
Across Australia other mining products are routinely transported in covered rail wagons, and it appears the only obstacle to doing the same thing in the Hunter may be an economic one.
The coal industry has recently called for public infrastructure funding to be directed to works that support its enterprises.
The public is within its rights to make a counter claim on the industry, demanding that it reinvest some of its very considerable profits of the past several years to cover its rail wagons and contain its unwelcome fugitive dust.