THE health effects of coalmining on Upper Hunter communities has been significantly under-represented, probably due to a lack of research, a new study says.
The study, commissioned by the Zero Emissions Group, coincides with an unprecedented number of pollution alerts from the Upper Hunter Air Quality Network.
The Health and Social Harms of Coalmining in Local Communities report: Spotlight on the Hunter Region report analysed 50 peer-reviewed papers about the health impacts of mining in 10 countries.
Lead author Associate Professor Ruth Colagiuri, from the University of Sydney's Health and Sustainability Unit, said that while several studies examined the social harms of coalmining in the Hunter, relatively little research had been done into the health effects of mining and coal-fired power stations in the region.
Chairman of the NSW Health Expert Advisory Committee, Professor Guy Marks, defended the steps the government had taken to protect the health of Upper Hunter residents.
He said the committee regularly provided expert advice and made formal submissions to minimise the potential health impacts of mining.
"These include the report on respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancer among residents in the Hunter, the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health study and Singleton Cancer Cluster investigation," he said.
No breathing easy on valley air quality
Camberwell air quality monitor results, Jan-Oct 2012. Air quality is measured against the Air Quality Index (below.)
THE health impacts of coalmining on Upper Hunter residents had probably been significantly underestimated, a new report based on studies of coalmining communities around the world has found.
The report, released today, coincides with the latest state government data showing Upper Hunter air quality has deteriorated dramatically over the past five years.
Air quality in most other parts of the state has improved in the same period.
The Health and Social Harms of Coalmining in Local Communities report: Spotlight on the Hunter Region report analysed 50 peer-reviewed papers about the health impacts of mining in 10 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Israel and China.
It found recurring adverse health problems in coalmining communities including increased rates of cancer, heart, lung and kidney disease and birth defects.
Lead author Associate Professor Ruth Colagiuri from the University of Sydney’s Health and Sustainability Unit said that while several studies examined the social harms of coalmining in the Hunter, relatively little research had been done into the health effects of mining and coal-fired power stations in the region.
‘‘Local research evidence about the impact of emissions from coalmines and power stations in the Hunter Region is urgently needed so that governments and community can make informed decisions and develop policies to minimise health harms,’’ she said.
The Beyond Zero Emissions environment group commissioned the study in response to growing community concern about the health impacts of coalmining and power production in the Upper Hunter.
‘‘The Hunter Valley has the highest concentration of coalmines and power stations in Australia,” group spokesman Mark Ogge said.
‘‘With plans for 30 new or bigger coalmines, an independent authority is urgently needed to monitor emissions in the region and for an in-depth health study to take place.’’
The group has also called for the introduction of 10-kilometre buffer zones around new coalmines and port facilities until independent studies into the health effects of mining and coal transport have been done.
The concerns are reinforced by the Environment Protection Authority’s NSW Air Emissions Inventory, which assessed 850 air pollutants in the greater metropolitan regions of Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle, including dust emissions from mines.
It found dust emissions containing particles equivalent to 10 microns (PM10) had increased in the Hunter from 40,000 tonnes to 60,000 tonnes, or 50per cent, between 2003 and 2008.
Industrial pollution in other areas, including Sydney, had steadily declined in the same period.
Despite the introduction of more rigorous dust pollution measures at Hunter mine sites, overall mining activity in the Hunter has also increased in the past five years.
Bulga resident Stewart Mitchell, whose home is surrounded by four open-cut mines, said dust pollution had become noticeably worse in the past five years.
‘‘Respiratory problems among children here are higher than elsewhere,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s not just my family, other people say how much healthier they feel when they go away on holidays.’’
Newcastle Coal Terminal Action Group spokesman James Whelan said the Beyond Zero Emissions study confirmed the group’s concerns about the proposed fourth coal terminal at Kooragang Island.
‘‘Tens of thousands of people live within a kilometre of coalmines and trains and the pollution they generate,’’ he said.
‘‘The NSW government can’t responsibly approve a massive increase in coal mining and export while the health impacts remain unknown yet potentially serious.’’
Chairman of the NSW Health Expert Advisory Committee, Professor Guy Marks, said NSW Health regularly provided expert advice and made formal submissions to minimise the potential health impacts of mining.
"These include the report on respiratory and cardio-
vascular diseases and cancer among residents in the Hunter, the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health study and Singleton Cancer Cluster investigation," he said.
The reports can be viewed on the the Department of Health’s website.
NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said the mining industry was under constant scrutiny and it took its responsibility to minimise pollution seriously.
“It is important to note that the report found no specific evidence to support the health claims of Beyond Zero Emissions, which is an organisation involved in a campaign to discredit mining,” he said.
“Many of the other claims are based on overseas examples, even though the report notes the considerable variation in mining practices across different countries.”
Worried locals call for health alerts to go live
THE Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network is not reflecting the true impact of dust pollution on human health, Upper Hunter residents say.
The network, which is made up of 14 monitors, has issued an unprecedented number of alerts for exceedances of national health standards over the past two months.
Most of the alerts relate to excessive levels of particulate matter of 10 microns or less (PM10).
Strong winds and a lack of rain have contributed to the situation.
Upper Hunter Environment Network spokeswoman Bev Smiles said while the network was better than nothing, it needed to be more relevant.
“All it has done has confirmed the hazards that the Department of Health has been talking about for years,” she said.
She said it was essential the network issued ‘‘live’’ alerts rather than rolling 24-hour average exceedance alerts.
“It’s a bit hard to take precautions five hours after something has happened.”
NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said industry was committed to the network’s future.
“The network has shown that despite recent exceedances of PM10 air quality standards in the region, there have only been two PM2.5 exceedances over the last year,” he said.
“We’re also working with the Upper Hunter community on air quality issues through our Emissions and Health Working Group, as part of our Upper Hunter Mining Dialogue.”
Environment Protection Authority chairman Barry Buffier said the government was committed to reducing dust pollution.
The NSW government was already working on identifying sources and reducing emissions from coalmining through a number of programs, which include the Upper Hunter Air Quality monitoring project, he said.
Flaws in dust study: group
A COALITION of 14 community groups has called on the state government to redo a study that found coal trains do not cause more dust emission than other trains.
The Coal Terminal Action, which represents the groups, has also written to Premier Barry O’Farrell and Planning Minister Brad Hazzard requesting they stop the approval process for the proposed fourth coal-terminal.
The study, by the Australian Rail Track Corporation at the request of the Environment Protection Authority, was conducted at Metford and Mayfield in February and March.
The results revealed a higher concentration of total suspended particulates and particulate matter.
However, the study found coal trains did not produce more dust than other trains.
A Coal Terminal Action Group spokeswoman said the group’s review of the findings disclosed some flaws.
‘‘Monitoring equipment was not located where coal trains move fastest [and] can be expected to generate the most dust,’’ she said.
‘‘Fewer than 30per cent of coal train movements were included in the analysis and the methods used to determine train movements and speed were inaccurate and acknowledged by the report author as being a limitation of the study.’’
Greens MP Cate Faehrmann said that the community had every right to be suspicious of the report’s findings.
‘‘A finding that uncovered coal trains don’t cause more dust than other types of trains seems completely implausible,’’ Ms Faehrmann said.
‘‘The government must conduct a more comprehensive study that can be independently reviewed.’’