Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


New South Wales: Coalmining

7:10 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Friday I joined Australian Greens leader, Christine Milne, in Newcastle to meet with Hunter community groups and residents who are actively opposing the expansion of Newcastle harbour's coal export capacity with a fourth coal terminal, dubbed T4. Newcastle harbour is already the world's largest coal port, exporting climate change to the world. The expansion of mining and the export of coal out of the Hunter, with 180 million tonnes of coal forecast to move through Newcastle harbour each year, will see the further transfer of Australia's natural wealth into the pockets of largely foreign-owned mining companies. There is enormous opportunity in the Hunter for governments to drive the transition to clean energy and innovation; instead, the coal boom continues unabated—a policy that robs the region of jobs that would help build a sustainable future.

Hunter residents are bearing the negative impacts of the mining boom through poor health outcomes, degraded landscapes, loss of agricultural lands, damaged water resources and affected homes and businesses. For many years in the Hunter there has been a community campaign supported by the Greens about the environmental and public health impacts of coalmining. People are particularly concerned about uncovered coal trains that for years have rumbled through their suburbs to the coal port, leaving a growing legacy of respiratory problems and health concerns. The Newcastle Herald, which has taken up this campaign, dubbed 'The big cover-up', and has presented a series of reports on coal-dust related health problems.

Senator Christine Milne and I were presented with briefing papers from 13 key community groups and individuals, representing people from across the Hunter region. They have added their voice to this public health campaign. We were very moved by both the seriousness of their concerns and the breadth and depth of the expertise they have developed on planning, transport, sustainability, environmental pollution and health issues affecting people in the Hunter. I would like to share with you some of their concerns today.

The Stockton Community Action Group raised their concerns about a number of incidents that have occurred in the past 12 months and that demonstrate the health burden these people experience, often on a daily basis. There was the emission of hexavalent chromium from Orica, the leaking of arsenic into the Hunter River by Orica, the release of ammonium into the surrounding suburbs by Orica, and Koppers release of naphthalene into the surrounding suburbs. All this has occurred in the last year, along with the increasing levels of coal dust in Stockton that correlates with an increase in the volume and height of coal piles. Then there was the very disturbing cancer cluster that was identified amongst workers at Port Waratah Coal Services in July this year.

The Stockton Community Action Group was represented by Kate Johnson. She spelled out the need for us to look at the cumulative impact from the contaminants in the groundwater and in air at the Kooragang Island site, which could be the site for T4 coal loader if it goes ahead. She summed it up very clearly when she stated: 'Our concerns relate to our health and general wellbeing. We live in a beautiful place and we want to keep it that way.'

Then we heard from the Correct Planning and Consultation for Mayfield Group. This group has more than 500 members, who were represented by Claire Charles. She again spoke about the problems with the national port strategy. So while a number of the issues that these people spoke to us about concerned planning issues controlled by the state, they clearly intersect with federal responsibilities.

One thing that they mentioned on a number of occasions was how major projects like the cement terminal and the Mastelle bulk fuel terminal are being approved prior to the concept plan and meantime the national port strategy is not assisting to get the balance right here. I want to emphasise that this is not about getting rid of the industrial development in this area; it is about getting the association and the balance right. These people recognise and are very proud of the industrial contribution Newcastle has made but they know that that does not have to be at the cost of their own health.

We also heard from Doug Lithgow, the president of the Parks and Playgrounds Movement. He spelt out that for over two centuries there has been port related development in the Hunter River estuary and that future port developments need to set a historic marker and provide a turning point in the way development is imposed on the natural environment of the Hunter River estuary. I found his contribution very interesting in describing how industry butts up against internationally recognised wetland under the Ramsar Convention.

There was a very useful contribution that meant a lot to me as I am a keen birdwatcher from the Hunter Bird Observers Club. Ann Lindsey detailed the impact that these developments are having on local bird populations. To give you one startling figure, across New South Wales, according to a study by the World Wildlife Fund in 2007, around 30 million birds, comprising mostly woodland and forest birds and including species of honeyeaters and babblers that are under threat of extinction in New South Wales, died between 1998 and 2005 as a result of the approved clearing of native vegetation in New South Wales. That is a reminder of why we need to be so careful in how this development proceeds.

We also heard from the Hunter Community Network, which is an alliance of community groups in the Hunter Valley. They gave a very good summary of the federal issues that are impacting on the communities they work with. They named those as the function of accountability of the Australian Rail Track Corporation, the lack of national standards of measuring PM 2.5 and PM 1 dust particles, the subsidies to the mining industry, threats to other export industries from the region such as wine and thoroughbred horses, and the cumulative loss of species with national environmental significance. These were issues that many of the groups we work with raised with us on that day.

We also heard from the National Parks Association of New South Wales, the Tighes Hill Community Group, the Maryville Community Group, and the Great Lifestyle of Wickham, which has a great acronym: GLOW. It was also a privilege to hear from David Horkan, the Newcastle Citizen of the Year for 2012. He spelt out the need for there to be greater awareness amongst locals of the challenges they were facing in terms of both social and community problems. It was a valuable contribution to our deliberations on that day. We also heard from Lock the Gate, which is addressing the issues to do with coal seam gas. At the moment they are involved in the very important action with the blockade at Fullerton Cove. That was another major issue of concern. What was so impressive was that these groups between them bring together thousands of locals who are becoming active on the issue.

Another one of the big groups that spoke to us on the day was the Coal Terminal Action Group. They spelt out issues of concern on the need for a rigorous assessment of the T4 proposal by the environment minister. One of the big fears of the community groups is that T4 will be approved without the Commonwealth comprehensively fulfilling its EPBC responsibilities. Again that issue about the coal dust came up and there was a call for the adoption of a national standard for PM 2.5, and a very good suggestion that the Greens have also been taking up: that the federal transport funding of $3.5 billion for coal rail infrastructure should be withheld until the coal wagons are covered and the dust lost minimised. That issue is causing such stress along the rail line expansion which is occurring in the Hunter. I particularly congratulate CTAG, the Coal Terminal Action Group, for an extensive survey that they carried out in the Newcastle area. They door-knocked almost 500 households in Newcastle and there were a number of online respondents. The survey results clearly show that 77 per cent of residents, including some residents who work in the industry, do not want any more coal loaders in Newcastle. Fewer than 10 per cent of residents want more coal loaders. Dust, health and pollution are the people's top concerns, with dust mentioned more than twice as frequently as any other issue. Noise and traffic are the second and third most frequently mentioned concerns. Thirty-nine per cent report that they or a member of their household suffer from a respiratory ailment and one-third of these people consider that the ailment is caused by coal.

I appreciate the briefings these organisations provided to Senator Milne and me on Friday. We are very informed and look forward to continuing to work with them. (Time expired)