Unfair cost of dust burden

AN OVERWHELMING majority of Hunter people supports the principle of covering railway wagons that carry coal from the valley’s mines to the Port of Newcastle.

A small minority, however, argues that people who live near rail lines must expect some dust and noise. Others suggest that requiring coal companies to cover their loads puts the profitability of an important regional industry at risk.

No doubt neighbours of railways used for coal haulage do expect some impacts on their lives, but it is unlikely that many of them ever expected Newcastle coal exports to grow as they have in recent years. A surge in energy demand overseas – led by the Chinese industrial transformation – has triggered massive price increases and that has fed back into more investment in mines, transport and loading capacity.

Train movements have grown enormously and, as a result, the dust nuisance once considered relatively minor has become an appreciable problem.

The warning that mining profits may be put at risk by requiring dust suppression is similar to many arguments put forward on behalf of many industries over many years. The reality is that industries whose activities cause serious negative impacts on their surrounding communities are invariably able to find solutions when they are obliged to try.

It is vital to note that the calls for rail wagons to be covered would be just as loud if those wagons were filled with any other product as dusty as coal.

The important points are, first, that dust emissions have grown in proportion to the volume of freight and, second, that knowledge about the potential harmful effects of very fine dust particles has increased greatly in recent years.

It is a fact that a variety of options are available to reduce dust from rail wagons. The question is whether it is fair – given what is known about the possible health effects of dust – for those involved in mining and moving the dusty commodity to keep avoiding the economic cost of making their operations safer.

Costs imposed on unwilling or unwitting third parties are known in economics as ‘‘externalities’’. Hunter people living with dust from coal wagons have been bearing that particular externality for far too long.

City council race

NEWCASTLE’S local government election in September is already generating more interest than usual, with a long list of candidates throwing their hats in the ring.

The lord mayoral race will be particularly interesting, now that millionaire Lake Macquarie businessman Jeff McCloy has declared his intention to run for the office.

Political pundits are tipping that the plethora of conservative candidates may split the vote and help Labor regain control of the council chamber, and some in the Labor Party also appear convinced they can hold their historical share of the vote and romp home clear.

They may be right, but in the present climate it’s probably a mistake to assume too much about the voting intentions of a city that has changed beyond recognition from its blue-collar heyday.

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