Newcastle Unites Against New Coal Terminal


Health concerns over the proposal for a fourth coal terminal have united residents in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. The community is fed up with the continued expansion of the coal industry and the lack of real investment in renewable energy. A coalition of 18 community groups is lobbying against the project.

Newcastle, already the world's largest coal port, currently exports around 115 million tonnes of coal each year, with a capacity for 210 million tonnes. The new terminal, called T4, would allow Hunter coal exports to expand to 330 million tonnes each year. It would mean three times as many coal trains, three times as many coal mines and three times as much coal dust blowing into our suburbs. By our own calculations, if T4 were built, coal exports from Newcastle would generate more greenhouse pollution than all of Australia's onshore emissions combined.

With an initial construction cost of $1.2 billion, and estimates of the total project cost running to $5 billion, investors will want the facility operating to capacity well into the future to make their investment profitable. Thus, T4 would reinforce the reliance of the state coffers on coal and reduce opportunities for a clean and healthy region with a diversified port.

T4 would also necessitate the construction of 10 more mega-mines in the Hunter Valley and Liverpool Plains with all the associated impacts these entail. Open-cut coal mining completely eliminates existing vegetation, destroys the genetic soil profile, displaces wildlife and habitat, degrades air quality, and alters existing land uses like farming. It permanently changes the topography of an area and leaves behind a scarred landscape with no scenic value and depleted soil. Mine tailings dumps produce highly acidic water, which can seep into waterways and aquifers. Collapsing tunnels cause subsidence of land surfaces and can have a devastating impact on landscapes, property values and rivers.

A recent survey of 580 households found that fewer than 10 per cent of Newcastle residents support T4 and most are concerned about the health impacts of increased coal dust. Newcastle residents routinely wipe coal dust from surfaces inside and outside their homes. Dust levels already routinely exceed the national standard. More than 25,000 children attend schools within 500 metres of the train line and 32,000 people live in this coal corridor. For children and residents living nearby, T4 would mean 107 extra uncovered coal train movements every day, resulting in even higher levels of particle pollution, leading to increases in respiratory illnesses.

The health impacts of coal mining and transport in the Hunter and the dangers from cumulative exposure to coal dust are well documented (pdf). Improved workplace health and safety regulations have minimised workers' exposure to deadly coal dust. But those regulations provide no safety to communities surrounded by mines and coal infrastructure, where coal dust continues to rain down. Add in those towns and families living near the transport corridors and the number of affected people grows exponentially.

People living in coal-affected communities are more likely to suffer heart, lung and kidney cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular disease and birth defects. There is a direct link between long-term exposure to particle pollution and hospital admissions, emergency department attendance, asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, congestive heart failure and premature death. The University of Sydney has released a study showing there are serious health impacts for communities living near coalmines and coal combustion power stations. A cancer cluster has recently been identified at the proposed site for the T4. Workers at Kooragang Island are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the average person. Proceeding with the terminal will expose even more workers to a higher health risk.

The fine particles associated with coal mining, coal transport and the diesel emissions from coal trains are monitored throughout the Hunter Valley. During the past year, monitoring stations recorded 115 exceedances of the national standard for PM10 (particles of up to 10 microns in diameter). To learn more, the Coal Terminal Action Group recently raised funds to conduct its own study of levels of particle pollution around the coal train line. They hired air pollution monitoring equipment and monitored air pollution at 12 households within 500 metres of the coal corridor during December. The data has been analysed by University of Newcastle scientists and is available on the website of the Hunter Community Environment Centre here.

Given the inherent dangers associated with the mining and burning of coal, it is disappointing to see continued investment in this archaic, polluting energy source with its risks to workers, local communities and the health of the planet. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency, set up as part of the Government's Clean Energy Future, receives $3.2 billion per year — significantly less than the investment in just this one coal based project. When you consider the funds that will be required to enable T4 to run at full capacity, suddenly $3.2 billion looks like small change. A $5 billion investment in renewable energy would be the moral course of action, one preferred by thousands of people concerned not only with climate change but with the true cost of the coal industry.

The Coal Terminal Action Group — a coalition of 18 community groups — has mounted a strong campaign against the terminal, which has already delayed the project considerably. In April 2012, nearly 500 submissions were lodged with the Department of Planning, over 95 per cent of which were objecting to the proposal.

In June 2012, Port Waratah Coal Services announced a two-year delay in the planned construction time of the terminal. In December, PWCS halved the capacity of the initial phase of the project from 120 to 70 million tonnes p.a. The community campaign against T4 has now managed to both delay the project and shrink its initial size. However, while Port Waratah Coal Services have set back the anticipated start time for the project, they are still seeking immediate approval from the NSW and federal governments.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.