Islington, Mayfield and Stockton residents doorknocked their neighbours as part of the Coal Dust Free Streets project in April.
The project followed a pilot conducted in Tighes Hill last year and was styled on doorknocking projects conducted in the Northern Rivers and Queensland that gauged community attitudes towards coal seam gas development.
Neighbours were asked if they believed it was time to properly address coal dust pollution, and their thoughts of the proposed fourth coal-loader (T4) that Port Waratah Coal Services (PWCS) proposes building.
These are pertinent questions for residents in these areas, living near the coal loaders and/or rail corridors that service the coal industry. Since 1984, Newcastle coal exports have grown more than sevenfold, from just 21 million tonnes per annum then to over 150 million tonnes per annum today.
Should the proposed fourth coal-loader be built, and all four loaders reach full output, the amount of coal shipped would nearly double over current levels.
It seems self evident that if you are going to massively increase coal exports from terminals located immediately adjacent to residential areas, you must also dramatically and stringently tighten dust control measures to offset. Communities know commercially available technologies for covering coal wagons and coal stockpiles exist, and regularly washing coal wagons is possible.
Shouldn't this be happening then? Well, yes it should, if you take seriously the opinions of the 1270 respondents to our doorknocking project. Results over the four suburbs report 90 per cent of those polled believe coal wagons should be covered and regularly washed, and coal stockpiles should be covered.
We appreciate coal from the Hunter has been traded since pre-colonial times, and there is a diverse spectrum of opinions about the industry, which employs a small but well-advocated-for minority of the Hunter Region's workforce.
However, only 20 per cent of those we polled actually support the idea of a fourth Newcastle coal-loader, whilst 63.2 per cent oppose the fourth loader. Interestingly, doorknockers reported speaking with several coal industry workers who believe coalmining should not expand any further beyond its current scale, and who quite emphatically support the concept of covering coal wagons.
Doorknockers asked residents in Islington, Tighes Hill and parts of Mayfield South and Mayfield East if they believed there should be a curfew on coal train movements between 11pm and 5am, similar to Sydney airport's curfew. This would provide respite from train vibration, shunting and wheel squeal noise.
The response showed 68.7 per cent of 906 locals polled support the idea.
Meanwhile, of the 113 people surveyed in Mayfield North (the area closest to the proposed site of T4) 82.3 per cent want a curfew on construction and operation of the new coal-loader, if approved.
And of 428 people surveyed in Islington, 92.1 per cent want coal and freight train movements diverted away from residential areas. This would be achieved by constructing a new rail line through the old BHP site to the Carrington loader, rather than running trains through Islington/Mayfield/Tighes Hill, and by building the western freight bypass connecting the main north line near Morisset to Maitland.
In terms of the sample size and methodology, it is worth comparing our doorknocking to a survey included in T4's environmental assessment, prepared by consultants Gillespie Economics on behalf of PWCS, and released in February 2012.
Their phone survey sampled 402 people's opinions, whereas we doorknocked 1270, meaning our sample size was three times greater, thereby achieving broader results.
And their report stated that "a total of 71 per cent of respondents indicated they were aware of the T4 project, and of these, approximately 45 per cent were supportive of the T4 project going ahead".
Is that 45 per cent of the 71 per cent? If so, why not just say "32 per cent of respondents support T4"?
Premier Michael Baird and his reshuffled government must heed swelling Newcastle public opinion. We are not just a royalty factory for Sydney.
People of all ages, from all walks of life, live and work near the coal train corridors and stockpiles but they are sick of coal dust pollution being ignored. It is outrageous that a fourth coal-loader is being considered for approval without a health impact study being conducted first.
Public opinion regarding the broader question of what role coal should or should not play in the future of this city is varied, and nuanced. But at the end of the day there are some things we all largely agree on. Nine out of 10 people want coal wagons and stockpiles covered and just one in five supports T4.
by Terry McCauley, member of Islington Village Community group, which is a coalition partner of the Coal Terminal Action Group.