The release of the latest national pollution data from the National Pollutant Inventory once again confirms that air quality in the Hunter is in a state of crisis. It further confirms coal as the single leading cause of our regional air pollution through the operation of the Hunter’s mines, power-stations and export terminals.
In the Upper Hunter, communities are exposed to near constant coarse particulate pollution in excess of World Health Organisation standards. More than 84% of New South Wales' total coarse particulate pollution is produced by mining and burning coal in the Hunter Valley alone. The particulate pollution from coal in the Hunter is more than 29 times the pollution produced by all of the motor vehicles in the state combined, and more than 120 times larger than the pollution from agriculture.
Residents of Muswellbrook living in the shadow of two of the country’s most polluting power stations, Bayswater and Liddell, are subjected to a toxic cocktail of pollutants, which includes not only coarse and fine particulates, but also sulfphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and volatile organic compounds.
Those who live alongside the rail corridor or in Newcastle’s portside suburbs endure the health impacts from exposure to diesel and dust particles, and these impacts have been increasing year on year with increasing throughput. Polluting emissions from the three existing coal terminals have increased by 70% in the past five years.
Clearly, all of the efforts the EPA has made with Pollution Reduction Programs and the Upper and Lower Hunter Air Quality Monitoring network have not managed to arrest rising ambient air pollution levels. Pollution has increased in proportion with the expansion of mining. It is simply not possible to expand coal mining limitlessly and expect to maintain healthy ambient air quality.
The industry response to this crisis is obstructionist at best. The most modest measures for reducing the coal pollution load are vigorously resisted, and claimed to incur prohibitive costs and reduce efficiency. This is even the case for measures that have been shown to be cost neutral. For instance, washing unloaded coal wagons to remove excess dust and prevent residual coal being carried back along the rail corridor not only reduces the fugitive dust emissions, it pays for itself in the value of recovered coal.
Luckily, there is a simple solution to the problem: place strict and enforceable limits on air pollution on each mine, on the rail corridor and at the port as part of each company's licence to operate. Many Hunter residents may be shocked to discover that this is not already done, and indeed it is a rather glaring gap in the EPA's approach to date. Setting total limits on the annual pollutant loads emitted by industry through their environment protection licences can further link licence fees to the level of emissions. This approach adopts the 'polluter pays' principle, using the profit motive as an incentive for ongoing pollution reduction. Put simply, the lower the pollution, the lower the fee and the less likely that a fine or penalty will be incurred from pollution exceedences.
The NSW Government currently uses this approach particulate pollution emissions for many activities, but not for coal works. By extending enforceable pollution limits to coal mining, burning and transport, the EPA would give itself the ability to prosecute and act against the rogue operators that breach the air quality thresholds the country has adopted at a national level. Monitoring and voluntary programs do not achieve this, but strict limits placed on these dangerous pollutants in the licences will very easily allow them to do so.
Consider coal train pollution as an example. Setting a pollution limit from diesel and dust emissions is a step towards the longer term target of zero emissions from coal trains. Rail and rolling stock operators would be then able to select a range of appropriate solutions to meet those limits, including improving the management of coal moisture content, correcting the profiles of loaded coal wagons, proper maintenance and washing of wagons, regular and frequent cleaning of accumulated dust in the rail ballast and the use of chemical suppressants and hard covers on loaded wagons. The flexibility of this approach allows industry to implement the most effective and efficient pollution abatement methods.
The latest pollution data gives the EPA a clear mandate to act boldly and decisively on air pollution and health. Including strict and enforceable limits in operating licenses provides real incentives for ongoing improvements in the adoption of cleaner technologies, and works to bring air pollution back within safe levels of exposure, to the benefit of the entire community.