In a new report on the health effects of the coal industry in the Hunter Valley, the NSWNMA has recommended a widespread community education campaign as well as a plan to transition the Hunter economy fairly and sustainably to renewable energy.
“Look out the back here and you can see the orange glow of diesel fumes,” says NSWNMA Muswellbrook branch president Adrian King when The Lamp calls him at home. “Then you add to that the dust … it doesn’t rain anywhere enough. On top of that you’ve got these silent power stations churning through the coal.”
Adrian is describing the mining and power station pollution that plagues the Hunter Valley.
Adrian helped distribute surveys to Hunter residents as part of the research for the NSWNMA report. As he did so, he began educating himself more about the industry.
“I think everyone knows that the emissions from burning coal to produce energy create sulphur dioxide and particle pollutants you don’t want to breathe. What I didn’t realise until very recently is it is also radioactive.”
While he says it is “always very difficult to nail down causes”, working in the Hunter he sees an alarmingly high number of heart- and lung-related diseases. “I see a lot of cardiac issues, a lot of chest pain and a lot of respiratory issues such as asthma and hayfevers.”
On top of the industry’s health effects, the report high-lights the industry’s environ-mental consequences.
“Coal from the Hunter Valley is Australia’s largest single source of carbon dioxide,” says Dr Janet Roden, the report’s author and NSWNMA Professional Officer.
From her community meetings, focus groups, interviews and surveys, she found that people in the Muswellbrook region “were confused and divided about the effects of local power stations on theirs and their family’s health”.
People were also confused about what impact the slated 2022 closure of the Liddell Power Station would have on them, but a clear majority were worried about local jobs.
Seventy-one per cent of respondents to the NSWNMA survey clearly agreed that the transition away from coal would have a significant negative impact on the economic and social life of the upper Hunter Valley communities.
“Only a small group (12 per cent) of respondents could see the benefits and the positive outcomes of the transition,” Janet Roden says. “There is a real absence of awareness and understanding of the deleterious health effects of the emissions from the power stations and the mines: nearly 75 per cent said their health and their family’s health would not improve or were undecided about the health effects of the Liddell closure.”
The Hunter’s dependence on coal
Not long after the NSWNMA report was completed, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) reviewed three coal-fired power stations – Eraring, Vales Point and Mt Piper over Christmas and January 2019.
“The EPA could see no reason why there should be changes like putting pollution devices on [these] power stations. This was very concerning. These power stations pollute at three times the concentrations [allowed] in the USA,” says Dr Roden.
One of the problems with any plan to move away from coal is the community’s economic dependence on the industry.
Adrian says he is acutely aware of the impact of closing coal-fired power stations without planning to transition to other sources of energy and employment. “We have to figure out a better way of doing things. How do we transition away from coal so people aren’t running scared because they are worried about employment?”
The NSWNMA’s report recommends a twofold approach for transition in the region; one that addresses the knowledge gap about the health impacts of mining and power station emissions, along with a comprehensive plan to move to sustainable energy.
It says “a lack of knowledge about renewable energy needs to be addressed through … community education and support for new renewable training opportunities for power workers”.
“The Muswellbrook Shire Council needs to work with the Department of Education and the Ministry of Health about community education promotion programs on topics like the health impacts of mine and power station emissions, what can be done to minimise their negative impacts and coping with change and resilience,” says Dr Roden.
“There is also a great need to educate students from kinder-garten through to high school about renewables and to ensure local TAFEs can be established in Singleton, Muswellbrook and Scone, not just Newcastle, for the purpose of running courses on renewables, and retraining power workers and others in the renewable technology.”
The NSWNMA report also recommends establishing an independent statutory authority to plan and manage the transition away from coal, and the development of a Renewable Energy Hub.
Read the report