Hunter Environment and Community groups have criticised the NSW Environment Protection Agency's recently announced ‘Upper Hunter Air Particles Action Plan,’ as a repackaging of mostly existing policies and programs touted as new.
Of the 18 action points in the Plan, released last week, just three are new. The other 15 are policies or programs that are already in place, or form part of the EPAs regular duties. For example, the plan sets an annual target of 8 micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5 (dust particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres), which is the existing national standard that all Australian governments have been committed to for several years.
The Action Plan focuses exclusively on dust emissions from coalmines in the Upper Hunter, and fails to address transport of the coal through the Lower Hunter and through the Port of Newcastle.
Coal Terminal Action Group spokesperson Zoe Rogers said that while Hunter groups welcomed genuine efforts by regulators to curb dust emissions, they were disappointed that existing EPA programs have been re-badged as new.
"We can only assume that the NSW government is concerned about the deservedly bad press that coal mines and coal dust have been getting lately, so they've rolled together everything they've ever done about dust in the Upper Hunter and announced it as something new," said Ms Rogers.
"It's worth noting that under these existing schemes, like Dust Stop Phase 1, there were 115 exceedances of the national air quality standard for PM10 in the Upper Hunter."
The plan includes enforcing operating conditions for coalmines; however the Singleton EPA Compliance office is not staffed from 5pm Friday to 9am Monday. "We've heard from mine workers that they really go hell for leather over the weekend - when complaints just go to an answering machine at the Singleton EPA Office," Ms Rogers said.
The Coal Terminal Action Group is calling on the NSW Government to undertake a dust and health study for the Lower Hunter, on the heels of short term monitoring that the group undertook in December and January. The study must precede government assessment for any expansion in Newcastle coal export capacity.
"We know from recent independent data that dust from the existing three terminals and the coal trains is a real problem in Newcastle and the Lower Hunter. The NSW government must find out what exactly this fine dust is made of and what it could be doing to people's health," said Ms Rogers.