The Climate and Health Alliance is calling for the NSW government to phase out coal mining and coal-fired power generation in the Hunter Valley based on the findings of a research report that shows the coal industry there is creating an annual medical bill of around $600 million due to the impacts of pollution and 348 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year – Australia’s largest single source of CO2.
Alongside the report, CAHA has released a set of policy recommendations including the prohibition of new coal projects, a long-term social and economic transition plan for the region, and stricter air quality measures to reduce exposure to current and future coal-related pollution hazards. It also recommends that the government mandate health impact studies for any coal development, and that a more detailed assessment of health impacts be undertaken.
CAHA has also written an open letter to the NSW premier calling for a phase out of coal activities in the region, and for a firm state government commitment to not approving any new coal projects. The letter has been signed by some of Australia’s leading scientific and medical experts including Professor Fiona Stanley, Professor Tim Flannery, former NASA scientist Professor James Hansen, chair of Doctors for the Environment Professor Kingsley Faulkner, and Professor Nick Higginbotham from the University of Newcastle.
The report, Coal and Health in the Hunter: Lessons from one valley for the world, states that there is serious harm to human health at all stages of the coal lifecycle, including mine development, mining activities, coal transportation and combustion.
“The risks to health can be both physical and psychological, and arise from direct causes such as air pollution and water contamination, and less directly from economic burdens, emotional distress, social conflict, ecological degradation, loss of biodiversity and climate change,” it states.
The data shows that some towns in the Hunter with close proximity to mines have higher levels of particulate air pollution than inner-Sydney suburbs, and that all towns in the region exceeded the national guidelines for particulate pollution on multiple occasions.
In addition to particulate pollution generated at each stage of the coal lifecycle, there are also health impacts from other pollutants produced from mining and burning coal including sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrochloric acid, volatile organic compounds and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
In a summary for policymakers that accompanies the report, the authors note that despite the proven and costly impacts of the coal industry, recent changes to planning laws remove the rights of communities to contest proposed projects.
“The views of health experts and community members have little impact on policy and approvals, and projects are failing to account for greenhouse emissions, human health and broader environmental impacts,” it states.
In addition to Hunter-specific measures, CAHA’s policy recommendations apply the issues identified in the Hunter to a national canvas with a call for limits on transport-related diesel emissions, new air quality guidelines that comply with World Health Organization standards, stricter monitoring and compliance regimes, and the establishment of a national environment protection agency that can ensure “decisions are made in the national interest, not in the short-term interests of state or territory budgets”.