HUNTER doctors have taken the unprecedented step of inviting government ministers to stay overnight near Upper Hunter coal fields and experience the “crisis” in air quality first-hand because “we’re not sure people outside the region understand how bad the situation is”.
More than 30 doctors have sounded the alarm after a spate of recent air quality alerts in the Upper Hunter, including five straight days of poor air quality in August, even before an expected extreme drought-linked hot, dry and windy summer ahead.
They have signed a letter inviting Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton and Health Minister Brad Hazzard to the coal region before summer after a dramatic spike in Singleton Hospital emergency department admissions in 2017 coinciding with hot, dry conditions and declining air quality.
In the letter to Ms Upton and Mr Hazzard the doctors, including pediatrician and University of Newcastle Associate Professor John Boulton, described worsening air quality as a “crisis… that is causing serious health damage”.
“This pollution is harming people. It is difficult for people outside the region to understand the effect this pollution is having on people in the Hunter. We ask you both to come for a one or two day trip to the region to meet affected communities and health professionals to discuss this crisis,” the doctors wrote in the letter which was supported by more than 70 community and environment group members.
“The increase in PM10 (coarse particle) pollution in the last 10 years corresponds to an overwhelming intensification of open-cut coal mining in the Hunter Valley,” the doctors wrote.
This pollution is harming people. It is difficult for people outside the region to understand the effect this pollution is having on people in the Hunter.Hunter doctors calling for action by the NSW Government
In February Doctors for the Environment spokesperson John Van Der Kallen sought an urgent meeting with the Environment Protection Authority after the Upper Hunter experienced more than 180 air quality alerts from January to October, 2017, with 72 in September 2017 alone, blamed in part on unseasonal hot, dry and windy conditions.
But instead of responding to worsening air quality the NSW Government is overseeing more open cut coal mining in the Upper Hunter, with the newly-approved modified Mount Pleasant mine immediately upwind of Muswellbrook posing new risks to the community, Dr Van Der Kallen said.
In the past five years coal production in the region has increased by 20 per cent and accounts for 90 per cent of industrial-sourced coarse particle air pollution, Doctors for the Environment said. But Environment Protection Authority initiatives to create a clean air strategy for NSW and include coal mining in a user-pays industry pollution scheme had stalled, the DEA said.
The Upper Hunter also experienced increased toxic air pollutants from Bayswater and Liddell coal-fired power stations, doctors said.
Doctors are concerned that modelling commissioned by the EPA showed that annual average fine particle air quality standards were “unlikely to be attained in Singleton and Muswellbrook into the future as coal production in the Hunter Valley is expected to continue to increase”.
The modelling found human-made sources of fine particle pollution needed to be reduced by 50 per cent to meet the standard.
Singleton doctors Tuan Au and Robert Vickers said the region needed stronger action from the NSW Government to protect public health.
“When there are spikes in coarse particle pollution there is a decline in the health of local residents, particularly those with asthma, heart and lung disease,” Dr Vickers said.
“The number of spikes we have seen recently shows the government is not holding up its responsibility to maintain air pollution standards and our population is the one suffering.”
Lock the Gate spokesperson Georgina Woods said worsening air quality was the biggest concern people raised about coal mining in the Upper Hunter.
“We've got to the point where compliance crackdowns are just not enough and the overnment has run out of excuses,” Ms Woods said.
“We need strong new measures to keep mines away from villages, schools and homes. We need the NSW government to stop adding to the burden by opening up more and larger mines. There is an urgent need to bring back some balance and prioritise public health instead of mining profits.”
In 2014 Uniting Church minister Wes Hartley was forced to leave his position at Mayfield after becoming an unlikely canary in the coalmine about the potential impact of coal dust on human health.
He moved back to Busselton in Western Australia after he began coughing to the point of exhaustion, vomiting without warning, was unable to speak properly, lethargic and experiencing breathlessness akin to chronic asthma.
After running tests his doctor advised Reverend Hartley to leave town. His symptoms ended when he returned to his former home area of Busselton.
Reverend Hartley said he was surprised at the “total, almost fatalistic, acceptance of an environmental situation in the Hunter that would be unacceptable in most other parts of Australia” relating to air quality.