Opinion | Doctors take stand against mine proposal

BATTLE: Gloucester residents have another mining proposal on their doorstep.
BATTLE: Gloucester residents have another mining proposal on their doorstep.

The proposed Rocky Hill open-cut coalmine near Gloucester should be rejected outright by the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC), which is meeting this week. There are plenty of reasons for tearing up the proposal – open-cut mines are bad for health.

The mine will be within one kilometre of residents and within five kilometres of the town centre. Locals will be exposed to worsening of air quality, extra noise, light pollution at night, deterioration in water quality, blast plumes and, if a blast plume goes wrong, death. Blast plumes, which produce toxic fumes, when a blast goes wrong, are unpredictable events. There have been documented episodes where workers have been affected by a blast plume, six kilometres away.

Consequently, in 2014, the state government released a safety bulletin warning of the risks of blast plumes and advising that the gases produced can “spread significant distances”. The government also noted that there can be “little, if any, orange fume produced”.  In other words, local people may not even be able to see and react to such an event. How could mine management reduce this sort of risk to health or life?

Would the whole population of Gloucester be educated about the health impacts? Would respiratory masks be available to protect against the gases? And when should they be used? Would the local hospital be upgraded to be able to accommodate for multiple emergency cases? 

The people of Gloucester valley have already experienced the psychological trauma of dealing with the uncertainty of a proposed mine on the edge of their town. Only last year AGL pulled out of its CSG proposal after a huge effort by the community. It is for these multiple reasons that the NSW Department of Planning and Environment recently recommended against approving this mine.

In 2017 the proposed extension of Acland open-cut coalmine was rejected in Queensland because of concerns regarding the deterioration in air and water quality, noise, and intergenerational inequality that would see future generations displaced from “the food bowl” or fertile land because of the mine. This is precisely the situation that applies in the fertile Gloucester valley. It is not just the residents of Gloucester who will be affected, as the coal from the Rocky Hill mine will be exported via Newcastle, people along the rail corridor and Newcastle. 

This year, a new coal-loading facility in Washington, US, was rejected. One of the reasons for the rejection was the increased risk of cancer for those living along the rail corridor. Rocky Hill coal will add to the current health risks along the coal exporting path. 

Australia is attending the climate talks in Bonn, where we are proudly claiming to uphold our Paris commitments on fighting global warming. By approving coalmines, such as the Rocky Hill mine, or the Adani mine, we will be showing the world, and especially our Pacific neighbours, that we do not care about the major causal role that coal has on climate change.

The PAC meeting will decide the final outcome of the Rocky Hill project. Medical professionals stand with local people in calling for this proposal to be rejected and the lease to be removed, so that the population of Gloucester does not have to go through this process again.

Dr John Van Der Kallen is a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. He will speak on Wednesday at the PAC meeting in Gloucester on the health impacts from the proposed Rocky Hill mine