Singleton Hospital emergency admissions jump as air quality falls in the Upper Hunter

Warnings: Bulga resident Alan Leslie monitoring the impacts of nearby open cut coal mines. He is one of a group seeking a meeting with the Environment Protection Authority about Hunter air quality monitoring.
Warnings: Bulga resident Alan Leslie monitoring the impacts of nearby open cut coal mines. He is one of a group seeking a meeting with the Environment Protection Authority about Hunter air quality monitoring.

UPPER Hunter residents have sought an urgent meeting with the NSW Environment Protection Authority after data showing a dramatic spike in Singleton emergency department admissions in 2017 coinciding with declining air quality.

Singleton Hospital admissions jumped by 28.6 per cent between July-September, 2016 and July-September, 2017, the NSW Planning Assessment Commission was told during a recent presentation by Doctors for the Environment.

During the same period the state average emergency admissions rose by 10 per cent, compared with an 8.5 per cent decrease at Maitland and no change at John Hunter Hospital, the PAC was told.

Data collected by Doctors for the Environment showed Singleton air quality monthly averages derived from one-hour averages across the Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network showed PM10 figures rose from 16.4 micrograms per cubic metre in September, 2016 to 30.4 in September, 2017. During the same period PM2.5 figures rose from 6.9 to 8.0 micrograms per cubic metre.

Doctors for the Environment spokesperson Dr John Van Der Kallen said 181 air quality alerts in the Upper Hunter from January to October, 2017, with 72 in September alone, showed the clear need for stop work limits on coal mining when air quality worsened beyond exceedance limits.

While rainfall in Singleton had dropped from 728mm in 2016 to just 461mm in 2017 leading to drier conditions than usual, people’s health should not be compromised because of it, Dr Van Der Kallen said.

In its quarterly report for June-August, 2017 the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage described Upper Hunter air quality as “generally good”, while noting that PM10 concentrations were above the benchmark on 10 days during that period, which was higher than winter figures over the previous five years.

Upper Hunter residents Alan Leslie, John Krey, Wendy Wales and Bev Smiles, and Environmental Justice Australia researcher James Whelan, have sought an urgent meeting with EPA acting chief executive Mark Gifford after calling on the authority to review and strengthen its regulatory approach.

We have no confidence that the EPA will protect our communities from air pollution without additional and decisive measures.

Upper Hunter residents Alan Leslie, John Krey, Wendy Wales and Bev Smiles.

Warkworth monitoring station had registered 12 exceedances in 2018, Maison Dieu and Jerrys Plain had both registered eight, and 24-hour PM10 concentrations as high as 133 micrograms per cubic metre had been recorded, where the standard is 50, the group said in a letter to Mr Gifford.

“The inadequate compliance regime is exposing our communities to harmful concentrations of pollutants including coarse and fine particle pollution and contributing to respiratory ailments,” they said.

“EPA staff routinely refer to Dust Stop as the remedy to this problem. It clearly is not. Dust Stop was launched in 2013 and particle pollution concentrations have continued to exceed the national standards during the five years since then,” the group said.

“Meanwhile, more mine expansions have been approved, adding to the burden. We have no confidence that the EPA will protect our communities from air pollution without additional and decisive measures.”

Mr Leslie said he had repeatedly advised the EPA of air quality exceedances and hourly PM10 readings of more than 200 micrograms per cubic metre over the previous two years with no response other than an automatic reply. He had repeatedly advised the EPA of huge PM10 spikes in the middle of calm nights and asked for them to be investigated, with no response.

Mr Leslie was incensed when a complaint to Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen about deteriorating air quality, based on the monitoring network’s own data, were responded to by Hunter parliamentary secretary Scot MacDonald, who said the EPA had been in contact with Mr Leslie over several years and had given him a “detailed explanation” of what it was doing in response.

“I have not had a response from the EPA which is why we are seeking a meeting,” Mr Leslie said.

Mr Whelan said the exceedances and data showed “a clear failure by the EPA to uphold its legislated responsibility, which is to manage air quality in order to protect community health”.

“For better or worse, the national air pollution standards are the baseline. At the bare minimum, the EPA is compelled to ensure that air pollution concentrations don’t exceed those standards, and take action when they do,” Mr Whelan said.

He described the Dust Stop program as a “public relations strategy”, and said a load-based licensing scheme started in late 2016 appeared to have stalled after the coal industry objected to being included in the polluter pays system for the first time.

The EPA said its Dust Stop program reduced dust emissions by 22,000 tonnes per year across NSW since it was introduced in 2012, and had been a “huge success”.

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