Prime Minister backs call for dust study

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard has called for more scientific investigation of coal dust’s impact on Hunter communities.

Ms Gillard, who was in Newcastle yesterday to inspect Ausgrid’s Smart Grid, Smart City demonstration centre at Honeysuckle, visited the Newcastle Herald and discussed major issues facing the region.

Topics included the Herald’s Great Cover Up campaign, which began last month after growing community concern about the known and potential effects of coal dust pollution.

To sign the Newcastle Herald’s Great Cover Up campaign petition to get the Hunter’s coal wagons covered, click here.

‘‘I am well aware of your campaign and I can understand why, on behalf of this community, you would be running that campaign,’’ Ms Gillard said.

‘‘From my point of view, we need the science and all of the information about the impacts for community members and for their health.

‘‘The state government and the Environment Protection Authority need to play their proper roles and then make decisions about what’s the safest, best way of dealing with coal transport and the associated dust issues.’’

Ms Gillard acknowledged a similar campaign was under way in Queensland and said the expansion in both state’s coal industries meant it was no longer ‘‘just the occasional train’’ hauling coal to Newcastle.

Ms Gillard said her family’s Welsh history gave her a ‘‘sense of connection’’ with mining and the concerns people held about coal dust and health.

‘‘My family was from a coalmining region of Wales,’’ Ms Gillard said.

‘‘I don’t remember it – I was only four when I came out here – but when we went back and visited our relatives, my father and his younger brother were the only ones [of seven children] who didn’t go into mining or marry miners.’’

Ms Gillard said she remembered how her uncles had a permanent ‘‘black ridge’’ of dust under their eyes that ‘‘you couldn’t wash off’’.

‘‘I’m telling those stories because I think I have some sense of the concern people can feel,’’ Ms Gillard said.

‘‘In Wales and right around the world we have rightly lifted occupational health and safety standards for coalminers. We needed to do that and we got it done. For your community now, it’s important to bring all of the scientific expertise to bear to assess what it means for people.

‘‘It’s state government business, it’s EPA business and I certainly believe they have to play their part in getting that information and allowing the community to have it.

‘‘It needs to be transparent and then the best decisions can be made on what can be done.’’

On other subjects, Ms Gillard was confident the Newcastle central business district would eventually be rejuvenated.

On the University of Newcastle’s plans for inner-city expansion, Ms Gillard said: ‘‘The university has played a huge role in the life of Newcastle and its vision about having more of a physical presence, a presence in the centre of the city, is certainly something I can understand but I am not in a position to make a funding announcement.’’

Ms Gillard said the Hunter ‘‘launch site’’ of the National Disability Insurance Scheme would help build a system that would end the ‘‘capping and rationing’’ of disability services.

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