HOW could a historian and an atmospheric scientist collaborate to better understand the history of Newcastle’s air pollution problem? We combined science with public perceptions, and created a new book: Smoky City, A History of Air Pollution in Newcastle (Hunter Press, hunterpress.com.au).
Smoke was linked with the Newcastle district from the first written accounts and sketches of the early 1800s, from fires lit by the Awabakal and Worimi people for cooking, heating and land management.
Once a penal settlement was established at the mouth of the Hunter River, fire was also used for new purposes including burning shells for lime and evaporating sea water to produce salt.
Newcastle’s smoke became distinctive as the mining of coal was established and the coal was burned locally for an increasing range of purposes: in steam engines for mine ventilation, pumping and lifting coal from the 1820s; by steam ships in the harbour from the 1830s; by railway engines that carried coal to the port from the 1850s; and in the other smaller industries that were slowly established, ranging from potteries to brickworks to smelting. Visitors commented upon the contrast between the fresh sea breezes and green bush around Newcastle, and the blackness of the smoke and heaps of coal around the ‘‘grimy collieries’’.
Calculating from major sources, we found that by 1888, almost 3000kilograms a day of dust fell on Newcastle from this smoke.
Newcastle was building a reputation as dirty or smoky by the early 1900s, but the situation was made much worse by the opening of the BHP steelworks in 1915. Smoke and dust increased along with production through the 1920s and ’30s, and was added to by other modern developments, such as electricity generation.
Taking into account BHP, Zaara Street Power Station, harbour shipping, railways and residential sources of smoke, we found that just over 40,000kilograms of dust per day fell on Newcastle in 1939. The pre-WWII years were when Newcastle was at its smokiest.
By the late 1940s Novocastrians started to demand some relief. While there had always been local critics, the general view had been that smoke and dust were the prices of employment. Polluters made use of this defence, claiming that any measures to control their emissions would make them less profitable and possibly lead to closures. Steel works manager Keith Butler argued in 1949 that ‘‘BHP is not a chocolate or a silk factory’’ and some pollution had to be expected where 14 chimneys were conducting the fumes from burning three tons of coal a minute into the atmosphere. Newcastle City Council established the country’s first Smoke Abatement Panel in 1947 to bring together representatives of government and industry to work to reduce air pollution. In 1951, the first program of air pollution monitoring started, measuring monthly dust fallout by setting up collecting bottles at strategic points around the city. This allowed the council to target heavy polluters, like the Zaara Street Power Station, and to try to pressure it to have pollution reduction equipment installed.
The air pollution problem was finally recognised at a state level in the 1950s, leading to the Clean Air Act of 1961. But this Act initially still relied heavily on persuading industries to reduce their emissions rather than forcing them to do so.
Federal involvement in air quality followed in the late 1960s and ’70s in response to concerns over smog, focusing on motor vehicles. At the same time, the science of air pollution control was rapidly developing and more sophisticated means of both monitoring air quality and reducing emissions were put in place.
The results were dramatic for Newcastle. Emissions fell steadily through the post-war decades. When a National Pollution Inventory was trialled in Newcastle in 1994, it found the daily emission of larger particles was 5300kilograms, mainly from industry, but with important contributions from motor vehicles and domestic wood burning.
Since the closure of BHP, emissions have fallen further. Home heating, harbour activities, chemical works and metals manufacturing now contribute the majority of emissions, about 1100kilograms per year.
Newcastle is a smoky city no more, but that does not mean the end of air quality concerns. We know now that it is smaller particles and gases that can be most dangerous to health. Locally, the coal chain continues to produce concerns with dust as the coal is mined, transported and loaded.
Combining scientific and historical approaches offers new insights into air pollution and its management, and can inform strategies for the future.
Nancy Cushing is a historian in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle. Howard Bridgman is an atmospheric scientist in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences. Their book, A Smoky City, will be launched on Thursday, July 23, at the University of Newcastle Art Gallery, 4.30pm.
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