EDITORIAL: New EPA studies give Lower Hunter air a reasonably clear bill of healthOn 04/12/2018 by admin
FOR many years, the spread of open-cut mining across the Upper Hunter triggeredgrowing concern about the broader region’sair quality.
More recently, the Newcastle Herald’s“Great Cover-up” series was generated in response tothe complaints of people living along the main rail line into Newcastle, who were worried about the impact of coal dust on their health, and their environment.
In response, the NSW government and the coal industry responded with a range of studies that havedone much to build a baseline picture of the atmospheric situation inthe Hunter.Given the concern in mining areas, the Environment Protection Authority began with dust and particle studies of the Upper Hunter, resulting in a 2013 declaration –one greeted with some scepticism at the time –that the biggest pollution problem in Singleton and Muswellbrook, at least in winter, was wood smoke.
In the intervening period, studiesalong the coal rail lines also challengedpreconceptionsby finding that particulate emissions from diesel locomotives, rather than dust from either full or laden wagons, was the main source of pollution from freight trains.
Now, the EPA has released another suite of results, in the form of dust deposition and particle characterisation studies for the Lower Hunter. Thesefindthe region’s overall air quality is good by global standards, althoughhigher levels of particulate matter –particularly ammonium nitrate –have been consistently detected in and around the Port of Newcastle. To its credit, Kooragang Island company Orica has acknowledged its role as the source of these emissions, and is pledging further changes to its manufacturing processes to minimise them.
Extraordinarily, the EPAappears to have all but exonerated the coal industry from any major culpability when it comes to air quality.
Some people will no doubt find this a difficult message to swallow, especially in the Upper Hunter, where the logic that mine blasts send dust into the air is difficult to deny.But unless contrary evidence emerges, the EPA’s studies should be accepted asscientifically rigorous, and their findings valid. For the Lower Hunter at least, they confirm what most people would think looking out the window: that the region’s air is pretty clean, and certainly far cleaner than it was in the years when the Newcastle steelworks and the Boolaroo smelter were operating.