Newcastle’s T4 project puts short-term profit before health

Why hasn’t human health been considered in the push for expanded coal facilities? AAP Image/Paul Miller

A massive expansion of Newcastle’s coal export terminal has been proposed by Port Waratah Coal Services. Approval is likely soon, but the expansion’s effect on human health has been ignored in the project’s evaluation.

The Terminal 4 (T4) project, epitomises the ever-present issue of economic development versus environmental standards. With T4, the choice is stark: “environment” means air quality and polluted air brings ill health.

The questions raised over T4 are particularly concerning for a western society. This is an age when separating industrial activity from city living is the basis of good planning and health. But this is a proposal to almost double the transport of coal through the city, and to export it through a new terminal in close proximity to residential areas.

This trade has regional and international implications. The coal loader will allow expansion of mining in the Hunter with impacts on the health of local communities and on sustainable land management.

If this trade-off continues it will bring irreversible harm to a warming world, and only short-term profit to New South Wales and to Australia. When all the facts are on the table and understood, is that what the people of Newcastle and Australia want?

If the citizens of Newcastle are aware of the health implications, are they prepared to accept this trade-off? We’re unlikely to ever know, because present governance systems essentially bypass communities. They have opaque processes that favour the governments’ need for jobs and revenue. The health costs come later and are not accounted for in the decision-making process.

Doctors for the Environment Australia’s medical experts have analysed the statements in the Environmental Assessment for T4 and have taken note of the assessments of others.

The issues associated with the project are the air pollution from the coal loader and from the large increase in coal wagons traversing the city. Noise from the trains and the loader is also a public health issue and is already a cause for community complaint.

The assessment uses inadequate data and modelling to indicate that there will be only a minimal increase in the particulates in the air from the T4 project. This opinion is seriously flawed. The baseline year of 2010 used in calculations was relatively unpolluted compared to the previous years, and it fails to acknowledge the significant margin for error in any such modelling process.

The report concludes that the T4 project will not exceed the pollution levels as defined in the current Australian standards. We believe this to be an inadequate interpretation of the data, as the analysis starts from a base level of pollution taken from one year only, and with the wide margin of error with such modelling, this conclusion cannot be drawn.

There will also be an increase in air pollution along the rail corridor, although the degree of pollution is unclear because it has was not assessed adequately as part of the project’s Environmental Impact Statement. This increase would be mitigated by covering the wagons, but at present there are no plans to do so, and the cost of this has not been factored into the cost of the project.

The NSW Government’s health department comments

it is the view of the office that the contribution of coal dust from coal trains beyond 20 meters of the rail corridor needs to be carefully considered as a contribution to the cumulative impact on air quality and necessary mitigation strategies.

This has not been done.

There is increasing concern about the role of particulates in human health. Newcastle is already a polluted city, and according to the World Health Organisation criteria, has levels of particulate pollution in many areas that will be harming people’s health. This pollution comes from various sources including vehicles and other industries. That the T4 development will increase pollution should be a concern.

Chronic exposure to particulate pollution has been linked to heart and lung disease. Even short-term exposure to particulates is enough to affect lung function and trigger asthma attacks in susceptible people. This exposure cannot be avoided: every breath draws particles in to the lungs where some pass into the blood stream to harm many organs. The most damaging particles are the finest ones (PM2.5). These are not adequately measured in Newcastle and therefore could not adequately inform the T4 assessment.

These deficiencies must be equated against an increasingly secure scientific opinion that there is no safe level for particulates and that present regulatory levels will soon be reduced.

This expansion poses an immensely difficult decision for Newcastle. If the health of Newcastle’s citizens was a priority, the project would not go ahead. As the NSW Government health expert says

In future we would appreciate being included as a stakeholder agency in any developments that involve emissions to air, water, or soil that could have or could be perceived to have an impact on public health so that we can contribute…

It appears that such important processes are a way off yet.