The proposed expansion of coal exports through Newcastle will inevitably increase air pollution. The question is whether this is a threat to the health of Newcastle inhabitants.
The air of Newcastle is already polluted according to the meagre data presented in the Environmental Impact Statement. There is pollution of fine particulates (PM10) in excess of World health Organisation standards at a number of monitoring sites. Yet there is growing recognition that there is no safe level for the finest dust particles.
This pollution is likely to be impacting on the health of inhabitants; there is no evidence for this at present because studies have not been done but similar levels of pollution in many countries do increase the incidence of several heart and lung diseases and decrease life expectancy.
The largest source of particulate emissions within the Newcastle LGA is the existing Port Waratah Coal Services facility at Kooragang. Under the proposed expansion the export of coal will almost double and it seems inconceivable that pollution will not increase. The case made in the EIS for no increase is unconvincing, and the calculations are based on a number of assumptions that may not hold true.
More dust will also arise from the great increase in coal wagons travelling through a number of areas where people live, and again it is remarkable that no information has been provided on the pollution they cause at present.
For these reasons Doctors for the Environment Australia has indicated that there should be no more major developments in Newcastle such as the
It is important to understand the realities of environmental impact assessments of major projects in Australia.
When a patient with an illness sees a doctor there is an understanding that the doctor has a duty to deliver his or her best diagnosis and treatment. There are few impediments to this delivery and government and community are on side
In public health, the patient is the community and it is the aim of public health doctors and other practitioners to deliver the best measures to prevent ill health. This care is delivered to our satisfaction with water quality, food safety and vaccination, for example.
But public health is much broader than this. Here the best measures to prevent ill health in the community may be in conflict with the needs of huge financial interests and indeed governments.
At some point in the assessment process there is a trade off between the degree of health risk to the community and the perceived need to have the development. Government makes this decision.
Trade offs may be made for energy security and the need for jobs, or governments may argue they need the income to support health and other services that will benefit the entire community. And in times of budget deficits, or when the economy isn’t very healthy, conflicts of interest can easily occur, as governments need the money to maintain their income.
The T4 project will support increased coal exports, and is not about energy security for Australia. We don’t need the coal.
It is also important to appreciate the global impact of the trade off. The health of people throughout the world will suffer from a significant increase in greenhouse emissions and the ill health they cause through climate change and ocean acidification. Australia ignores this issue by not considering climate change as part of the assessment process, even though the health of Australians is also at stake.
On the basis of health this project should not proceed, there is insufficient information to make an informed decision on the extent of the risk.
But the political and financial pressures will be huge and like many other coal communities the Newcastle community may well suffer for the common good -as perceived by governments at least. We think that the people of Newcastle deserve better, and we all deserve to have our governments make decisions on the basis of common good and in the longer term interests for our health and well-being.
Linda Selvey is a medical doctor, specialist in public health medicine and a member of the management committee of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
David Shearman is a medical doctor and a professor of medicine and secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
Doctors for the Environment Australia