Coal companies must cut the crap and cough up for coal covers

The NSW Mineral Council’s call for facts on coal dust (Stephen Galilee Opinion Newcastle Herald 5 September 2013) has all the hallmarks of a bleating industry clinging to the mistaken belief that it can still run roughshod over community attitudes and community health like the good old days.

I think I can speak for the thousands of coal mining opponents in the Hunter in disabusing them: the social perception of coal in the Hunter has fundamentally changed, in part because of the industry’s contempt for community calls for reasonable limits on how much coal mining this Valley should be subjected to.

Mining companies, like any other industry that wishes to operate alongside your schools, homes and work places, have a duty to respond to community concerns. Failing to do so puts the economic and social future of this region at risk. The early US President John Adams did indeed say that “facts are stubborn things”, as the coal industry is finding out to their chagrin.

The NSW Minerals Council might look north and see that the Queensland coal industry and Government are looking seriously at addressing particulate emissions from coal trains. The Queensland EPA in 2010 oversaw a coal dust management plan for Queensland Rail on the basis that the Queensland coal industry, coal terminals and coal train operators were “committed to reducing coal dust from coal trains”.

The Queensland EPA website suggests that the main sources of coal dust emissions from coal trains are from:

  • wind erosion of the coal surface of loaded wagons during transit
  • leakage of coal particles from the doors of loaded wagons
  • wind erosion of spilled coal in the rail corridor
  • residual coal dust from unloaded wagons and leakage from doors; and
  • coal or coal dust deposited on sills and wagon bogies.

All of which has been confirmed by the Coal Terminal Action Group’s recent coal train signature study that revealed up to 13 times the dust pollution from coal trains compared to other trains.

The NSW coal industry has been dragged kicking and screaming towards taking air quality seriously and has fought reform every step of the way, begrudgingly funding the Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network to measure its own pollution.

Contrary to what the Minerals Council might want us to believe, the available evidence confirms that air quality in Newcastle is not at all “good”.

Published annual air quality data for the Newcastle air quality monitoring station has generally recorded annual averages of PM10 concentrations above the World Health Organisation guideline of 20ug/m3, the lowest levels at which total deaths from cardiopulmonary and lung cancer have been shown to increase.

The available evidence suggests that coal dust is a small proportion (<14%) of PM2.5 levels in Newcastle, but Stephen Galilee fails to mention that coal dust is primarily found in PM10 which is produced by mechanical processes, whereas PM2.5 originates primarily from combustion sources. Coal dust is likely to be a far greater contribution to the PM10 load than the PM2.5. It is therefore important to note that the NSW EPA is planning on undertaking a Lower Hunter particle characterisations study of only PM2.5, of which we can be certain a small proportion will be coal dust. This will hardly address the issue and will further undermine the EPA’s credibility.

PM10, however, is a different story. In 2011/12, Port Waratah Coal Services reported to the National Pollution Inventory emissions of 487 tonnes of PM10 into the air from its Kooragang terminal alone, amounting to 45% of all reported PM10 air pollution in the Newcastle LGA.

The NSW Minerals Council continues in its hectic refutation of evidence that coal wagon covers would greatly reduce dust. And yet, as early as 2005, a report for Queensland Rail by Connel Hatch revealed that covered coal wagons were 99% effective in reducing fugitive coal dust.

What the NSW coal industry wants is an easy regulatory ride, less red tape and simpler assessments and approvals. They moan that anything less would be unfair to the Hunter miners who would risk losing their jobs due to the rise in costs: in other words, they’re threatening to lay people off because of the prospect of an estimated $50 million cost being imposed on a $12 billion industry.

What is almost certainly going to happen is that the coal industry will once again be dragged kicking and screaming towards implementing a cheap simplistic solution such as spraying a chemical on the top of coal wagons. If this would fix the problem, we wouldn’t be having this debate. Sadly, it will continue and all the while our community’s health suffers for coal company profits.

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