Australian Government urged to strengthen air quality regulation: NSW Government failures aired at Senate Committee

The Newcastle hearing of the Senate Inquiry into the Health Impacts of Air Quality heard today that the national air quality standards are not being applied in small communities including Muswellbrook or to the Hunter coal corridor where 30,000 residents live within 500 metres of the coal trains.

Hunter Community Environment Centre representative Dr James Whelan testified to the committee, recommending the national air quality standards should apply wherever people live and work, and that the Environmental Protection Authority should enforce them rigorously. The standard for PM10 was exceeded more than 115 times in the Hunter during 2012.

“In Australia, our speed limits are strictly enforced, but air quality standards are routinely exceeded in Newcastle and Hunter and there is no consequence,” said Dr Whelan. “There is no regulatory protection for people in suburbs like Mayfied, Carrington and Tighes Hill, and in large parts of the Hunter.”

“The NSW EPA must act decisively to improve air quality. They should prevent approval of additional sources of pollution such as the proposed fourth coal terminal in Newcastle,” he said. “Instead, the EPA selectively applies the air quality standards to only the least polluted parts of the Hunter and effectively condones the approval of new coal mines and terminals.”

Representatives of the NSW Environmental Protection Authority and Minerals Council of Australia presented contradictory evidence. Evidence submitted by the EPA demonstrated that 87.3% of the Hunter Valley’s PM10 pollution comes from coal mining and 66% of PM2.5 (particles up to 2.5 microns in diameter). Senators questioned Minerals Council representatives at length about their claim that mining contributes a small proportion of the valley’s particle pollution.

Senator Richard Di Natale, a physician, observed that air pollution has a greater impact on public health than elevated cholesterol, lack of exercise or obesity. Medical epidemiologist Dr Ben Ewald has compared Newcastle’s PM2.5 levels to smoking three cigarettes each day.

Senators heard that air pollution levels well below the national standard compromise health. Other organisations testifying today included the Australian Medical Association, Hunter Valley Protection Alliance, Nature Conservation Council of NSW and the CSIRO. There was strong support for stricter air quality standards that incorporate fine particles and short-term exposure, and for standards to apply wherever people live.

Newcastle community groups welcomed news today that NSW Shadow Planning Minister Luke Foley supports further research before the proposed fourth coal terminal is considered. Mr Foley called for studies to understand exactly the nature of coal dust pollution in the Hunter, the precise sources of coal dust (how much comes from the mines, from uncovered wagons, from stockpiles, from coal handling) and its concentrations.

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