Coal Dust Debate in NSW Parliament

On Wednesday, 19th November 2014, the Legislative Assembly of the New South Wales Parliament debated the issue of air and particulate pollution from coal trains, and the health impacts on residents within 500m of the rail corridor. The debate was triggered by the submission of a petition which recieved more than 10,000 signatures from NSW residents from the Upper and Lower Hunter, the Blue Mountains, Gunnedah, the Illawarra and beyond.

The contributions to the debate from the MPs have been provided here for review, but the you can download a copy of the full Hansard here


Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS (Lane Cove—Minister for Resources and Energy, and Special Minister of State)

I thank the people of the Hunter Valley for their engagement and initiative in trying to find ways to improve local air quality. The Government, the Environment Protection Authority [EPA] and the Parliament, through the current upper House inquiry into the Performance of the NSW Environment Protection Authority have been extensively involved in addressing the concerns of the people of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley in relation to coal trains and their impact on air quality. On Monday last week the upper House inquiry held hearings in Newcastle, at which representatives of the Hunter Community Environment Centre and other witnesses presented their views and responded to questions from committee members. The committee will present its findings in February and I am sure it will address this issue thoughtfully and thoroughly. 

Coal from the Upper Hunter is transported to the Port of Newcastle by rail that passes through a number of urban areas. Members of the community are concerned about pollution from coal trains and have advocated for the covering of coal wagons. This Government has an extensive program in place to address coal dust as well as pollution created from the diesel fuel used by freight trains in the rail corridor. We will not take shortcuts that may prove to be costly and ineffective. We will continue to use a process of evidence-based gathering, analysis, option development, including cost-benefit analysis and consultation with all our stakeholders.

This Government continues to prioritise the improvement of air quality in the Hunter Valley. This is reflected in the funding allocated to air quality in general and the additional $8 million in funding over four years for air quality projects, of which a significant proportion is going to Hunter Valley projects. A whole-of-government response to air quality issues in the Hunter Valley, particularly for reducing particle pollution from coalmining, is being driven by an Interagency Taskforce on Air Quality in the Hunter. At the same time, community input into air quality issues in the Hunter is expressed through the Newcastle Community Consultative Committee on the Environment, which brings together government, industry and the community. This committee provides a forum for local residents to identify important local environmental issues as well as helping the EPA and local industry to understand community concerns.

The Hunter Valley region is the most intensively monitored region in Australia with 14 air quality monitoring stations in the Upper Hunter and a further six in the lower Hunter. It also has industry required monitoring. This monitoring network is an important source of information on daily air quality for the community. Together with particle characterisation studies in the Upper Hunter and the lower Hunter and the New South Wales air emissions inventory, the monitoring network is also an integral part of the Government's and the community's understanding of air quality in the Hunter Valley and its sources.

The Government is pursuing a number of further initiatives to deal with this issue. This includes an initiative targeting coalmine non-road diesel engine emissions from haulage trucks and heavy machinery, and the Dust Stop Pollution Reduction Program focuses on best practice for open-cut mines to reduce air emissions. Air quality in the Hunter Valley is an issue to which this Government is devoting a huge amount of expertise and resources. This Government will continue to work towards and to implement effective solutions to manage emissions from all trains and other types of diesel vehicles and equipment. 

Ms SONIA HORNERY (Wallsend)

It is a staple of fiction set in the wretched coalmines of Charles Dickens' Britain, right alongside unwashed urchins and pit donkeys. The persistent, hacking cough, not tuberculosis, but what is now known as coal worker's pneumoconiosis [CWP] once commonly called the "black lung", is caused by the inhalation of coal dust into the lungs. The lungs cannot cleanse themselves of this dust and the effects of this illness are similar to emphysema, which is the disease that killed my father. My grandfather was an asthmatic and I was an asthmatic as a child, so emphysema is a worry. In extreme cases CWP leads to necrosis of lung tissue. Six per cent of all occupational lung-related deaths in Australia are caused by CWP but recent industry measures have done much to address concerns about CWP. Though it takes years of daily exposure to develop CWP, coal dust is known to have deadly effects. Coal dust is a cause for health concerns. John Mackenzie from the Hunter Community Environment Centre said: 

  • This is a serious public health issue. Uncovered coal trains expose the community to elevated levels of particle pollution and cause a range of cardiovascular and respiratory health problems.

Members should keep this in mind because more than 30,000 people live within 500 metres of the coal corridor between Rutherford and the Port of Newcastle and 25,000 children attend school within that space. Air quality matters. In the United States it is estimated that 50,000 deaths a year can be attributed to poor air quality. In light of that it should come as no surprise that in 2013 concerned Hunter residents monitored particle pollution from coal trains in the Hunter Valley. ABC's Catalyst program filmed the study with expert assistance to operate industry standard monitoring equipment. After analysing the data the study reached some rather troubling conclusions, which are published on the Hunter Community Environment Centre website. The report states:

  • A total of 73 coal trains were observed during the three days of monitoring. The corresponding pollution data was analysed to generate "signatures" which depict particle concentrations before, and during the trains' pass by.

It further states: 

  • While coal trains pass, particle pollution concentrations increase up to 13 times pre-coal train levels.

The 2013 Senate inquiry into the Health Impacts of Air Quality recommended that State governments instruct the coal industry to cover coal wagons and this petition echoes that call. The widespread support from the community is evidenced by the fact that enough people signed the petition to trigger today's debate and, in my view, I believe it is incumbent upon this Government to take steps to ensure that coal wagons are covered. Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, Occupational and Environmental Physician, Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, told the Senate inquiry: 

  • Coal dust is obviously a risk; it has all the impurities that go along with it in the transport, as well. Coal may have arsenic, lead, heavy metals, [and] mercury. The science is clear that coaldust is a killer if you are exposed to it too much, so the simple thing is to remove that risk as much as possible."

The 2007 Australian of the Year, Dr Tim Flannery, was quoted in the Newcastle Herald as saying:

  • There are individuals and communities throughout the Hunter Valley who are suffering serious health impacts from the coal industry something as simple as covering coal wagons would be a great first step to protecting people.

A poll on the Newcastle Herald website indicates that more than three-quarters of respondents agreed that coal wagons should be covered. I am not launching a full-scale attack on the coal industry—I doubt that anybody in this Chamber is. Rather, I am calling upon the industry and the Government to take the necessary steps to protect the health of Hunter residents. Indeed, the coal industry has proven its willingness in the past to take steps to address industry-related health concerns. For example, in the CWP example I outlined the industry saw a health risk and made the effort to rectify it. I join the petitioners in calling on the Government to direct the coal industry to cover and wash all loaded and unloaded coal wagons. The Opposition is engaging in consultation with all relevant stakeholders to develop policy on this very important issue for the Hunter region and New South Wales.

Mr KEVIN ANDERSON (Tamworth)

I make a short contribution to the discussion on this petition. The Government has been listening closely to community concerns about pollution from coal trains and how the community expects it to respond. I will inform the House about the actions the Government is taking to ensure that this issue is addressed proportionately, efficiently and effectively. Air quality in the Hunter Valley rail corridor can be impacted by coaldust, mainly larger particles, and by diesel fuel used by freight trains whether or not they are carrying coal. The pollution from the use of diesel fuel is known as PM2.5—namely, very fine particles that can be breathed deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Many constituents in my electorate are concerned about this because of the increasing number of coal trains that are now travelling along the Narrabri corridor, through the electorate of Tamworth, on to Gunnedah, Corindi and beyond. 

The Environment Protection Authority [EPA] has prioritised PM2.5 because its health impacts can be considerably more serious than those of larger particles. When Professor Louise Ryan from the University of Technology undertook a re-analysis of the data from the monitoring of trains in the Newcastle area, she confirmed that there was no statistical difference between the level of particulate matter associated with loaded and unloaded coal trains and other freight trains. To address coaldust in the rail corridor, the EPA is examining operational practices along the coal chain from pit to port—loading, unloading and transportation—to identify opportunities to reduce air pollution; it has inspected coal train loading and unloading facilities in Queensland, including the use of veneering of the coal load; it is investigating the available options for rail system dust mitigation and their cost, including the washing of coal wagons; it is assessing rail system operator management practices; and it has commissioned, in close cooperation with the community, the Lower Hunter Dust Deposition Study to provide additional information on the composition and sources of dust in the community.

To specifically address coaldust from mining, the EPA has reported that through the Dust Stop Pollution Reduction Program coalmines now meet an 80 per cent emissions control efficiency target for wheel-generated dust. It will stop or scale back operations in adverse weather conditions, it will be required to trial best-practice measures for overburden removal, and it is working to reduce wind erosion. Through the Dust Buster program the EPA is undertaking a regular program of unannounced inspections of open-cut coalmine operations. It makes sense to take this time to investigate all possible sources. This Government is investing a lot into emissions from coal trains and other types of freight trains in order to find the most effective and efficient solution, or suite of solutions, available. 


Mr TIM CRAKANTHORP (Newcastle)

crackers.jpgIn 2012 the Newcastle Herald began its Great Cover Up campaign in response to the scientific and anecdotal evidence about health issues and coaldust from coal wagons. The evidence showed that both laden and unloading coal wagons were distributing harmful emissions into the communities they passed—from the Upper Hunter to the Port of Newcastle. The tabling of this petition from coal-affected regions highlights that more than 10,300 people are concerned enough about or directly affected by these admissions that they want their plight considered in this House. A further 591 petitioners have contacted my electorate email to voice their concerns about the health implications for the thousands of residents along the rail corridor into the Port of Newcastle.

I worked in mine safety before coming to this place so I know how important the industry is to my community. I also know that the New South Wales mining industry has an admirable track record in responding to health and safety concerns. No miner wants the health of their community, or any other community, compromised. As an elected representative of communities such as Tighes Hill, Wickham, Islington, Carrington, Maryville, Mayfield and Stockton, which are affected by coaldust, it is my responsibility to bring this issue to the Government's attention. John Mackenzie, spokesperson for the Hunter Community Environment Centre, said:

  • This Government has long had evidence that coat trains pollute our residential areas. With this petition, they now have a clear mandate to act.

Even if the Government is unable to approach this from a moral point of view, perhaps the pragmatic view of the long-term effects on our health system may sharpen its focus. Earlier this year the Newcastle Herald reported:

  • Several high profile public health studies have shown that particle pollution triggers increased incidence of respiratory and cardiovascular illness.

A 2013 Senate inquiry into health and air quality recommended that coal wagons be covered. Such a large group of people cannot be allowed to be subject to the health dangers of the particulate pollution that currently exists and which can so easily be mitigated by this relatively low-cost solution. Even the New South Wales Government best-practice guide recommended covering and washing coal wagons to limit pollution. It is incumbent on the Government to take the step of covering coal wagons, and the Opposition is consulting with all stakeholders to develop policy on this very important issue to the people of the Hunter and New South Wales.

Ms JODIE HARRISON (Charlestown)

I commence my contribution by acknowledging theNewcastle Herald Great Cover Up campaign, which has attracted the attention of many to this issue. In fact, theNewcastle Herald has a long history of campaigning for the community it serves, and the work of journalists such as Matthew Kelly and the Newcastle Herald editors should be recognised. I also thank the Hunter Community Environment Centre for its petition. The centre has voiced ongoing community concern about the hazard of coaldust to the communities that border the freight line in the Hunter, including the suburbs of Cardiff and Kotara south in my electorate.

I recently visited a couple who live in First Street, Cardiff south, about 800 metres from the rail line. They insisted that I see the levels of dust in their backyard before I left them. The gentleman wiped his hand over the outdoor furniture and then showed me his blackened palm. He told me he had cleaned the table only a few days earlier. That gentleman climbs onto his roof every couple of weeks to wash off the coaldust. He also collects roof water in barrels to water his garden and at the bottom of the barrels is black silt from coaldust—I have heard similar experiences repeated over and over again by residents along the freight line. This is also an issue of concern to parents. Some 60 schools, with approximately 23,000 Hunter schoolchildren—including my daughter—are situated less than 500 metres from the freight line. Indeed, there has been very real community concern about this issue for some time.

Both Government and industry have failed to respond adequately to this community concern. The local Hunter community must have faith that their health concerns are being treated seriously and that action will be taken. They certainly cannot rely on those opposite to protect their health. When a 2013 study found that coal train movements could increase dust levels by up to 13 times, this Government did nothing. Dust monitoring has been occurring along this freight line since 2011 but so far this Government is interested only in delaying action through more testing. I note the work of my colleague in the other place the Hon. Luke Foley, who has referred allegations of manipulated data from these studies to an upper House inquiry. We await those findings, which are due in February next year.

The Government should come clean on its plan to protect the health of people who live along the Hunter freight line affected by coaldust. The Hunter Valley has a long and proud association with coal, but no community can put the modest cost of action from industry above the health concerns of its families. My view is that we should be covering coal wagons to protect our residents—it is very much a Labor stance to protect people from the ill effects of industry. I am very pleased that the Labor Opposition is consulting with all stakeholders to develop policy on this very important issue for New South Wales and the Hunter.

Mr CLAYTON BARR (Cessnock)

I make a brief contribution to this discussion. It is interesting to note that we have also discussed today the stacks for the proposed road development in north-west Sydney and their pollution potential. The coaldust issue in the Hunter has been exacerbated over the past decade or two by the enormous growth in coal exports through the Port of Newcastle. Twenty years ago exports from the Port of Newcastle totalled around 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes per year. Exports are now at about 140,000 tonnes. So obviously coal movements on any given day have tripled, as has the amount of coal being carried by trains. My views on this issue are very public. I am enormously concerned about the coaldust that falls from the bottom of coal trains. As they move along the tracks the wagons shake and the dust falls out the bottom. It is almost visible to the naked eye. A simple and relatively cheap solution might be to wash down the coal wagons by running them through some sort of wash or spray machine after they have been emptied at the port so that there is no residual coaldust on the return journey up the valley, where the wagons are loaded with more coal.

Studies have shown that the trains using those lines, whether coal trains or otherwise, are stirring up dust. The evidence suggests that the coaldust is embedded in the rail line. There is a challenge here for innovators—I have said this before publically, and been mocked and ridiculed for it—to come up with some sort of train track vacuum cleaner to clean the tracks. That is where the coaldust sits—in the tracks. If a passenger train running along the tracks stirs up coaldust, if a wheat train running along the tracks stirs up coaldust and if an empty train running along the tracks also stirs up coaldust, then the evidence suggests that the coaldust is in the tracks. We probably need to do something about that. It is an area for innovators and inventors to focus on rather than me. Surely that is part of the solution going forward.

Coalmining is an incredibly important part of the culture, tradition and employment in the Hunter Valley. It is essential that we continue to produce coal. We need to be clear—and this was a bit confused in the contribution by the member for Tamworth—that there are two issues here and they need to be separated completely. The first is the coaldust along the coal train lines and the second is the general particulate dust that is created by the open-cut mines further up the valley. These are two completely separate issues. They are sometimes confused in the media but they need to be separated and kept separate because the solutions to those problems are completely separate.

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