The government needs to do more to monitor air quality and consider potential health impacts such as asthma and emphysema when approving new coalmines, a Senate inquiry has found.
The bipartisan report has recommended that real-time data on air quality should be provided before any new mine development, and that trains carrying coal should be covered, to ensure that coaldust doesn’t escape and potentially cause respiratory and other problems in nearby residents.
The committee also called on the government to assess the cumulative health impact of nearby coalmines before approving new mines and supported calls for “buffer zones” around houses, although it didn’t specify a certain distance, which currently varies according to state.
Particles released from coal mining have been blamed for a number of diseases in people, including asthma, emphysema, heart disease and stroke.
Dust released from coal wagons has prompted complaints from residents of Newcastle in NSW, while the committee heard of community concern in Anglesea in Victoria, where a coalmine was permitted to be placed within a kilometre of a school, even though the state bans any new wind farm within 2km of housing.
One submission from a resident of the mining town of Jondaryan in Queensland told the committee: “We get burning eyes, a burning tongue, a sore throat and burning throat. I am a bit croaky, that is from coal.
“We also suffer from itchy skin, ringing in the ears, ringing in your brain. Sometimes at night, you go to sleep and your brain is swishing like it is running around in your head.”
In its submission, Asthma Foundation New South Wales cited NSW government research that found that nearly 40% of 9- to 15-year-olds in the Hunter Valley and New England region, which has several mines, suffered from some form of asthma, well above the national average of 10%.
The NSW Minerals Council said that covering coal wagons would be expensive and have no significant impact on air quality near rail lines, while the Minerals Council of Australia pointed out that not all harmful airborne particles are created by the coal industry.
“You need to look at the composition, the size and the very nature of those particles,” it said in its submission. “For example, if it is a rock it is not going to go very far. If it is dust, depending on prevailing weather conditions, it will go a certain distance but then it will drop out – especially if it is coarser particles. If it is ultrafine particles, they are not sourced from mechanical digging.”
Greens senator Richard di Natale, who participated in the Senate inquiry, told Guardian Australia that air quality monitoring in Australia was inadequate.
“The standards we have are weak and in some cases non-existent,” he said. “Monitoring is a complete dog’s breakfast and is back to front. We have handed monitoring over to industry, rather than independent bodies, and we set different standards for the city to those people living in a small town next to a mine.
“You just have to go to houses in Brisbane or Newcastle and see that people have a layer of coaldust on their clothes and curtains. All the evidence shows that coaldust contains a carcinogen, but we have been blinded by the financial windfall of coal mining.”
The Greens are looking to increase pressure on miners, unveiling a new plan on Thursday to safeguard the Great Barrier Reef which, the party claims, is threatened by the resources sector.
A $176m “rescue package” for the reef was unveiled by party leader Christine Milne. The money includes an extra $100m for the Reef Rescue program, which reduces harmful run-off onto the coral ecosystem, and $16m to identify areas where no coastal development should take place.
“It’s incredibly short-sighted of the old parties to be tearing up the Great Barrier Reef for the sake of exporting hundreds of megatonnes of coal that will significantly increase global warming,” Milne said.
“Labor and Tony Abbott just cannot be trusted to protect the environment.”
“The Greens plan will stop new dredging or offshore dumping of dredge spoil in this World Heritage area, protect the pristine areas of the reef and put an end to damaging port expansions like Abbot Point.”
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