WHEN are "non-discretionary" air quality standards designed to protect the community from serious health risks actually discretionary?
When the Department of Planning advises that's the case, as it did in a recent response to questions from the Independent Planning Commission considering the controversial re-opening of the Upper Hunter's Dartbrook coal mine.
Forget the earnest words in government brochures about cleaner air for NSW. Forget the lengthy process by which Australian states agreed - by and large - on new national air pollution standards for fine and coarse pollution.
When push comes to shove, when there's a mining proposal on the line and the community is raising annoying objections based on the cumulative impact of so many huge open cut mines in one area, the Department of Planning can be relied on to clear a path for another coal mine approval with the simple re-definition of a word.
"A consent authority is not prevented from granting consent if the non-discretionary development standards under the Mining State Environmental Planning Poicy cannot be complied with," the department told the commission.
So those non-discretionary development standards relating specifically to cumulative air quality standards are discretionary after all, despite any comfort the public might have taken from seeing the term in a state planning document.
But this is NSW after all, where it pays not to rely too much on what the government says about mining, building, gambling or other spheres where it's too close to industry.
The Department of Planning advice to the commission is the more galling because it followed an admission that a Muswellbrook air quality monitor - part of the Environment Protection Authority's Upper Hunter air quality monitoring network - "commonly records exceedances" of the most worrying PM2.5 fine particle standards, where NSW Health tells us there are no safe limits for humans.
Coal mining pours millions of dollars - easy dollars - into NSW Government coffers each year. It provides jobs. It also appears to blind the government to its responsibility to the people of the Upper Hunter - to ensure the air they breathe won't harm them.
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