If POSCO/Hume Coal gains approval to mine under the Southern Highland’s fragile aquifer, it will place a giant coal stockpile, six storeys high and nearly a kilometre long on Berrima’s doorstep.
Coal dust generated from this stockpile will threaten catastrophic health impacts for children and families immediately downwind.
The villages and towns affected will include Berrima, New Berrima, Bowral, Burradoo and Moss Vale – where many of the Highland’s schools are located.
In a report completed for Senator Larissa Waters, all the regional communities investigated were encumbered with a disproportionate health burden from elevated particulate matter (PM) exposures.
The health impacts of coal mining operations on nearby communities were unequivocal – increased sickness and mortality rates.
The particles carried on winds from coal stockpiles are associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks, neonatal and infant mortality, low birth weights and premature delivery.
Even short exposures are dangerous
Hume Coal has talked about the impacts of 10-micron coal dust particles based upon average wind speeds of 13 km/h, which many in the community suggest is an absurdly low figure.
However, the 2.5-micron dust that Hume is not talking about is what concerns us most. These particles are much finer – about the size of bacteria – and are capable of penetrating the indoor home environment. Even very short periods of exposure, such as a few hours, ‘can trigger an increase in the population’s risk of hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory issues’, the report says.
Individuals at risk
The very young and the very old are placed most at risk. With exposure to 10-micron PM, children under 5 are far more likely to suffer mortality due to acute respiratory infections. However, everybody is adversely affected.
Communities at risk include those near rail lines that transport coal as well as coal loaders. Hume Coal’s proposal includes over 350 coal wagons travelling through the highlands daily.
What’s happening in the Hunter Valley
Research into the public health implications of coal operations in the Upper Hunter is being conducted by local Singleton GP, Dr Tuan Au, who became concerned about large number of child patients presenting with low respiratory function.
Since 2008, Dr Au has visited schools in the Upper Hunter region and surveyed children’s’ respiratory functions. His provisional results show that one in
six children in the Singleton area have low lung function, while the national average is one in nine.
The anecdotal evidence that voices community anxiety cannot be ignored. Ethnographic investigation found that residents complain of chronic dermatitis, difficulty breathing headaches and mental-health symptoms.
Parents who take their children on holiday outside the Upper Hunter find that their children’s respiratory symptoms disappear for the duration of the holiday, only to return within a few days upon their arrival. More alarmingly, some parts of the Upper Hunter Valley are reported to have mortality rates 37% greater than the national average.
Air Quality Standards
There is a lot of evidence suggesting that the current ambient air quality standards are too high and allow for harmful exposures to PM.
When the significantly reduced public health outcomes are factored in, coal becomes the most expensive source of energy in Australia.
SOURCE: The health impacts of coal mining operations and coal combustion on geographically proximate communities. Mallory Barnes
 Mackay (Qld) Moranbah (Qld), The Upper Hunter Valley (NSW) and Latrobe Valley (Vic)