CANA supports the Ministry for the Environment’s proposed tightening of the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality for airborne particles and mercury emissions from domestic and industrial sources.
The MFE consultation document also acknowledges the importance of transport emissions for air quality (p.24), but defers to the Ministry of Transport, which also has a goal of reducing 2.5 micrometer particulate emissions.
In the process of researching these issues, however, CANA has found a distinct lack of information on air quality and public health in the communities below the Buller Coal Plateau. These communities, such as Waimangaroa and Granity (pictured) are exposed to coal dust from the mining and transport of coal, as well as emissions from coal- and wood-burning domestic appliances.
The situation in these communities appears very similar to that of Australian towns in coal-mining areas a decade ago.
To quote from the conclusion of a 2009 study of public health in the Upper Hunter Valley of New South Wales (emphasis ours),
“…residents face serious obstacles in their quest for rigorous air monitoring and a health study. These include the interdependence of state government and corporations in reaping the economic benefits of coal production and export, lack of political will and regulatory inertia…
Residents articulate their embodied experiences of malaise and illness from a disempowered position. Their experiential knowledge is discounted against dominant positions of industry and government that use state-sponsored science and regulatory regimes to deny, minimise or obfuscate the link between dust and disease.
We argue that environmental injustice and health inequity… has arisen because political economic interests outweigh concerns about long-term damage to the health of this relatively small… and electorally insignificant rural population. Governance issues, including decisions relating to the siting, regulation and supervision of coal mining and combustion in the Upper Hunter, have been instrumental in residents’ disproportionately high exposure to health risks from air pollution.
It is apparent, however, that the balance of power is shifting as residents’ pressure gains momentum… and resonance in important social and cultural domains such as local government, green politics and mass media. The companies are in a more defensive position, not only because of wider public awareness of local health impacts, but also because of the emergent societal concern about the unfettered expansion of coal mining and coal combustion, climate change and inadequate government policy responses.”
The last comment was prescient; within five years, the Climate and Health Alliance had published a report on coal and health in the Hunter and was pressuring local, State and national governments for:
- A ban on new coal projects in the Hunter Valley
- The development of a transition plan to assist the region develop new industries as coal is phased out
- Stronger regulation of any projects in the planning pipeline to adequately evaluate and limit health, climate, and environmental damages
- Stricter air quality standards and monitoring of all coal sources, with data publicly available
- Increased consultation with communities affected by coal projects
- The implementation of mandatory health impact assessments as part of all project assessment processes still in the planning phase
- Comprehensive health research studies to evaluate: the environmental health risks faced by local communities from exposure to pollutants associated with the coal industry, and the social impacts associated with disruption to communities, to landscapes, ecosystems and other industries.
CANA believes it is well past time for similar actions in the Buller.
It is time for the coal industry to accept and assume the full costs of their activities, rather than “externalise” (i.e. ignore) them, and continue to pollute the air and water – and damage the health – of neighbouring communities.