Cathy Burgess, long time Hunter Valley resident and local nurse, summed up the growing sentiment in this coal impacted region: “How bad does Hunter’s air pollution need to be before the government will act?”
I was with Cathy and about 150 locals packed into a community meeting in Newcastle last Thursday to hear the NSW Environment Minister, Robyn Parker, attempt to justify the unjustifiable – giving the go ahead to the proposed fourth coal terminal.
For me this event was the final leg of my latest Hunter campaign visit, this time to win support for the Greens’ motion before the Senate to set up an inquiry into the impact of the mining and transport of coal on the health of local residents.
I had started this visit in Maitland where Greens local organiser Jan Davis had put the word out to members and supporters. When we got together for morning tea the ideas came thick and fast. As one local joked with me – like the coal dust they have to regularly wipe off their houses and cars.
Mothers and grandmothers came with their children, deeply troubled by the increase in coal rail traffic just a few hundred metres from where their children go to school and pre-school.
Australian Rail Track Corporation has committed $3.5 billion to a major coal rail upgrade to enable more trains to deliver export coal through Port Newcastle, the world’s largest coal port.
Much of the discussion at the Maitland meeting was about the use of the air quality monitors. The community won the installation of these monitors in the Upper Hunter after the NSW government and opposition refused to back the Greens call for a state health impacts inquiry.
The community are now calling for these monitors to provide real time warnings and not just average out the readings. The ideas included authorities providing SMS warnings when the air pollution is at a dangerous level. When that occurs people in institutions including schools, old people’s homes and hospitals should be warned to close the windows and stay inside. Importantly, the network needs to be expanded to cover towns like Maitland which are regularly exposed to coal dust.
At a public meeting I attended in Newcastle held that evening by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), air pollution experts from the Newcastle University and the EPA confirmed the high pollution levels in the Hunter. Over the past year the national standard for PM10 have been exceed 98 times.
After the Maitland morning tea we checked out the upgraded rail line where coal trains with uncovered coal wagons cut across the Hunter flood plain every ten minutes. As I looked up and down the track and locals chatted about their health concerns I thought of what else the $3.5 billion of public money could be used for in the Hunter.
This region has been an energy power house of NSW and Australia. We now know that this has come with a heavy health burden for local residents. The complaint I hear on every visit is about respiratory problems. The big worry is the effect this is having on young children.
After the Maitland meeting I headed into Newcastle where I met up with Greens Councillors Therese Doyle and Michael Osborne. We distributed information about the Greens Sick of Coal campaign and then the next stop was the weekly meeting of the Newcastle Trade Hall Council.
I appreciated that the unions found time for me on the agenda to talk about our campaign. I was followed at this meeting by CTAG. It is worth checking out on Facebook this dynamic alliance of 16 community and environment groups. They are leading a growing campaign to stop the building of more coal terminals in Port Newcastle.
Tonight I’ll be at a CTAG meeting in Newcastle convened to bring together community representative with local, state and federal politicians to seek the commitment of MPs to address the region’s coal dust crisis.