By Joanne McCarthy
THERE are calls for Upper Hunter coal mines to be temporarily shut down when air quality is hazardous to human health after a NSW Government review found Muswellbrook has some of the worst air pollution figures in the state.
Muswellbrook Shire Council, long-term resident and councillor Graeme McNeill and Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network committee member John Krey have challenged the Department of Planning and Environment Protection Authority to act after regular and worrying pollution exceedances in 2017, backed by a five-year review of government data showing high levels of industry and domestic air pollution.
“The dust is killing us slowly. It’s driving good people out of town and it’s all people are talking about – the health of their kids,” said Mr McNeill, who led fellow councillors during what he described as a “fiery meeting” with government representatives early this year after the council laid out its concerns to the Department of Planning in a letter in October.
The council challenged the department about why some mines continue to operate despite conditions of consent requiring a reduction or halt to mining when dust leaves mine sites during hot and windy conditions.
A former Muswellbrook coal miner backed Mr McNeill and said he “left a good job in the mines” to move to Port Macquarie after his son suffered asthma attacks from 12 months old until the family left the Upper Hunter in 2009 when he was 12.
“I did six years at the mines and it was paying my bills but you’re a hypocrite if you’re exacerbating the problem by doing what you’re doing. I had to make a decision for the good of my family and my son and I could see no other option, so we moved. He’s 20 now. He honestly hasn’t had asthma since we’ve been here,” the former miner said.
“We would never, ever go back there to live.”
The miner said he knew of other people who worked in Muswellbrook mines but whose families lived outside the area because of air pollution concerns.
Muswellbrook Council used data from Muswellbrook and Wybong air quality monitors to conclude there was a “significant increase” in coarse particle pollution at Muswellbrook when compared with nearby Wybong, which experiences similar prevailing winds.
The council concluded that “by far the largest majority of this is coming from open cut mines to the west of Muswellbrook”.
The council expressed concern that enforcement of mine conditions of consent “may not have occurred as rigorously as required”.
A five-year review of the Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network found Muswellbrook’s annual coarse particle concentrations were amongst the highest in the state, and it was the only site to record days over the fine particle benchmark every year since 2011.
The results showed “Muswellbrook residents have been exposed to air that may be harmful to their health and the source of dust is most likely the nearby coal mines”, the council wrote, in a letter noting it had lobbied “very strongly” to establish a compliance office in the Hunter, and had even offered council office space for the role.
Mr McNeill said he challenged government representatives about what action, if any, was taken to stop air quality from worsening once pollution levels were identified as hazardous to human health.
“You can taste the dust in the town sometimes,” he said.
While no clear answer was given at the meeting with councillors, Mr McNeill said that in a subsequent phone call with an EPA representative he was told the “economic impact on the state” of temporarily halting mine production was a consideration when responding to high air pollution levels.
The EPA did not respond to a question about whether that was the case, but said mines were required to modify operations during adverse weather under the Dust Stop Program.
Mr McNeill, who has lived in Muswellbrook for 36 years, said a trip to his parents’ home north of Tamworth showed open cut coal mining, and not hot, windy days, accounted for the town’s coarse particle pollution problems.
“Tamworth is just as hot and windy at times and it doesn’t get Muswellbrook’s pollution levels. You only have to drive 20km or less out of Muswellbrook to see the visual effects. The people of Muswellbrook have foregone their right to clean air so the rest of the state can benefit financially,” he said.
The monitoring network showed the Upper Hunter village of Camberwell is faring even worse than Muswellbrook, with 126 exceedances of national air quality standards for coarse particle pollution between 2012 and 2017. There are eight mines within 10 kilometres of the village and another four expansions planned.
Long time resident Deidre Olofsson received 248 email alerts of air pollution exceedances between 2011 and 2017, with 17 so far this year for real-time coarse particle pollution exceedances.
John Krey, of Bulga, a community representative on the Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network advisory committee for four years, said he had been pushing for the committee to develop strategies to reduce air pollution in the valley now that the performance of the monitoring network had been demonstrated.
“I’ve been disappointed with the response to say the least,” Mr Krey said.
“The network tells people when there’s exceedances. What we should be doing is stopping further mines because clearly we’ve reached a point where the cumulative impact of all that mining is air quality that’s a hazard to people’s health.”
Environmental Justice Australia spokesperson James Whelan said the NSW Government established the monitoring network in 2012 because of sustained community concerns but had “failed to actually control air pollution from coal mines and power stations”.
“It’s not enough just to know how much pollution Hunter communities are breathing and where it’s from. The EPA needs to actually control the polluters, targeting the mines, power stations and wood heaters.”
A 2013 study by the CSIRO found wood heaters contributed 62 per cent of Muswellbrook’s fine particle pollution in winter, but coal mining and power generation were responsible for nearly 80 per cent of the Upper Hunter’s fine particle pollution.
“The EPA has done nothing to control air pollution from wood heaters which are arguably the simplest air pollution problem to solve,” Mr Whelan said.
The CSIRO study did not examine coarse particle pollution. The NSW Government’s five-year review of the monitoring network noted coal mining was responsible for 88 per cent of Upper Hunter coarse particle pollution.
Lock the Gate spokesperson Georgina Woods said the monitoring network data showed annual average benchmarks for particle pollution had been exceeded many times in small and large communities since the network was established.
“What new measures is the NSW Government proposing to introduce to limit air pollution from coal mines? Has it imposed a levy on this pollution to make the companies pay and create an incentive to clean up their act? Apparently not,” Ms Woods said.
“Instead of bringing in new measures to improve air quality, the government is instead allowing more large open cut mines that we know will worsen this situation, like the expansion of Rix’s Creek and the new United Wambo open cut.”
An EPA spokesperson said all mines are required to minimise dust at all times through conditions on their environment protection licences.
“If they fail to do so the EPA will take action,” the spokesperson said.
The EPA is completing a Hunter dust risk forecasting system trial linking weather conditions to poor air quality, and including levels of activity at each mine during high dust risk periods.
A Department of Planning spokesperson said approvals required mines to assess their contribution to the airshed and manage operations to minimise dust emissions.
“The Department undertakes enforcement action where breaches are identified,” the spokesperson said.
A NSW Minerals Council spokesperson said mining operations in the Hunter “take air quality issues seriously, and thousands of local miners and their families also live in communities close to the mines where they work”.
“Air quality is a major focus in the assessment of all mining operations and every mine has an air quality management plan in place to ensure they meet the strict conditions set out in their approvals,” the spokesperson said.
The Minerals Council said coarse particle levels associated with dust emissions had been “well below the annual average health standard every year”.
Wood smoke from heating fires was the single largest source of fine particle pollution “which are the smallest particles of greatest health concern”, the spokesperson said.
Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network advisory committee chair John Tate said he did not have a problem with the committee developing strategies to reduce pollution “but to do that we need to address where it’s coming from”.
Published by the Newcastle Herald on 2 July 2018