Coal dust increase leaving vulnerable breathless

Published: April 09, 2020

Australia’s coal mines have seen a 61 percent increase in PM10 particles during the past 10 years, according to analysis from Environmental Justice Australia.

Predictably, coal mining regions of Central Queensland, North West NSW, and the Hunter were home to mines producing the most particulate pollution.

Of note is Whitehaven's Maules Creek coal mine, which, since construction began in 2014, has produced a considerable amount of dust, with more than seven million kilograms recorded last year alone.

Other mines in the North West also recorded increases in dust levels over five years, including Boggabri coal mine (23 per cent), and Tarrawonga Coal Mine (9 per cent).

Similarly, several Hunter Valley coal mines recorded increases in dust levels over five years, such as Yancoal Moolarben Coal Operations at Ulan (136 per cent), Mt Owen Mine at Ravensworth (37 per cent), Hunter Valley Operations - Coal and Allied (9 per cent), Bulga Coal Surface and Underground Operations (12 per cent), and Bengalla Operations - Coal & Allied (14 per cent).

According to NSW Health, PM10 - also known as “coarse particles” could be associated with adverse health effects, such as

  • cough

  • wheeze, or worsening of asthma

  • increased need for medications (e.g. puffers, antibiotics)

  • increased breathlessness.

  • heart problems

Singleton doctor Bob Vickers, from Doctors for the Environment Australia, said, “We are being told time and time again by the mines themselves, and the regulatory bodies, that best practice methods are being used to control air pollution. 

“Clearly this isn't the case. The children of the Hunter Valley already have unfairly higher rates of asthma than children in other parts of the country. 

“We're now in the middle of a respiratory virus pandemic, and now our airways and hearts have been weakened by this long term exposure to air pollution. There is no better time to take serious action to reduce pollution than now.”  

Ros Druce, who lives on her family’s farm at Maules Creek said she had noticed an increase in coal dust since the mine opened, particularly its effects on her garden and rainwater supply.

“My shrubs including geraniums, which are nearly impossible to kill, a lot of them suffered severely during the drought and have died even though I was continuing to water them.

“When I inspected them, I found coal dust on the leaves and because the leaves of geraniums face up, they were collecting the dust.

“I also have to constantly clean the gutters due to all the fallout from the mine, prior to any sign of rain, otherwise all that balck dirty stuff ends up in the rainwater tank when it does rain.” 

Ms Druce said the NSW EPA also conducted a coal dust analysis in an enclosed barbecue area on the property, which revealed 10-15 per cent coal dust was gathered.

Lock the Gate Alliance spokesperson Georgina Woods said people in the Hunter, particularly in the Singleton area, had long been complaining of increased air pollution.

She urged the NSW Environmental Protection Agency to add pollution from coal mining to its “load based licencing" scheme.

“This increase in air pollution across the nation is deeply concerning because we know it has an impact on people’s health,” Ms Woods said.

“We urge the NSW Government to add particulate and other pollution from coal mines to its load based licencing scheme so the companies creating this pollution pay the cost of it. Putting a price on pollution will focus the attention of mine operators on how to clear the air.

“It is a major flaw in the scheme that coal mines are not required to pay for the same pollution that other industries, which create less of it, are having to pay for. Coal mining is among the biggest contributors to PM10 particles in the state.”

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Content on this site is authorised by Georgina Woods for Lock the Gate Alliance, Lismore NSW.