Dust to dust
I live within a kilometre of the rail track in Morningside, one of 21 suburbs in south Brisbane through which coal trains trundle daily, their 100-tonne wagons uncovered. When I dust my living room, the cloth is often black, and the outside paintwork is far from its original white. Day and night we intermittently hear the locomotives as they accelerate on a straight just east of Morningside station, and there is often a screeching sound like metal scraping metal, which I'm told is to do with wheels on curving rail tracks into the station. And then there are the horns that blow in the night, although god knows why.
About nine million tonnes of coal travel along the Southeast Queensland coal corridor each year: 40,000 children attend schools within a kilometre of the line. I contacted Queensland Rail when I couldn't find consistent information online about the number of coal trains passing through my local station. Their spokesperson said:
The rail route between the West Moreton Mines* and the Port of Brisbane runs through Toowoomba, Ipswich, Yeerongpilly and Dutton Park and Lindum. Between Ipswich and Lindum, coal trains travel through a rail corridor shared by passenger and freight trains, which includes 26 operational rail stations.
The numbers of coal trains that run varies each week, however [sic] there are currently 87 return services (174 one-way) contracted to run each seven day week.
Coal pollutes at every stage of its production: extraction, transportation and processing. As coal pieces fracture, they disintegrate, creating 'dust' particles. There is no safe threshhold for exposure to coal dust, and the World Health Organisation classifies particulate pollution as a carcinogen – along with asbestos, cigarette smoke and diesel fumes.
Coal stockpiles are uncovered, too, and there are large ones at Jondaryan on the Darling Downs, Rosewood near Ipswich and by Coal Wharfe in the Port of Brisbane. Jondaryan is close to New Hope's Acland mine, northwest of Toowoomba on the Darling Downs. It operates 24 hours a day, 363 days a year. New Hope wish to develop a third stage of the Acland mine, taking production from 4.8 million tonnes a year to 7.5, and water consumption – in a drought-declared farming region – to 9 billion litres a year. (New Hope has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the LNP over the last few years.)
Two weeks ago, we attended a meeting organised by Clean Air Brisbane for Morningside residents. We listened to Drew Hutton of the Lock the Gate Alliance and a representative from Doctors for the Environment. The doctor informed us about the effects of dust pollution, from aggravated asthma and bronchitis to increased hospital admissions and visits to the Emergency Department to reduced lung capacity in children up to 18 years old. He urged for reforms of the national air quality standards (to include PM2.5s**), the monitoring of compliance with standards and populations at risk from dust pollution (and diesel fumes), a limit on the number of coal trains passing through residential areas, best-practice dust mitigation at mines and coal stockpiles, and health impact studies for all new coal mines. Cost-benefit analysis prior to approval of new development should include the costs of treating increased respiratory and heart disease as well as environmental impacts and loss of employment in other economic activities.
The National Pollutant Inventory has just produced data for 2012-13. You can access it at http://www.npi.gov.au/. It enables you to check individual polluters' outputs within your local government authority. I was able to look up information for Queensland Bulk Handling pty in the Port of Brisbane, for instance, where there is a large stockpile of coal, uncovered and awaiting export. The quantities of pollutants are listed, unfortunately not alongside recommended threshholds for easy comparison.
Australia's air quality has been declining during the last decade. Coal mining is identified in the report as the leading source of particle pollution: 380,000 tonnes of a total of 830,000 tonnes of PM10s**. Queensland is the nation's most polluted state as it has eight high-emitting coal mines (in the Bowen Basin). The Hunter Valley in New South Wales is the second most polluted region, with the Singleton area alone contributing 53,000 tonnes of PM10s, 96 per cent of it from coal mining. Electricity generation has the next largest pollutant total.
The battle to cover coal train wagons and stockpiles – rather than just suppressing dust with water or lacquer – comes down to cost. With coal prices currently below the viable production figure of $90 a tonne, mining companies are unlikely to want to pay for lids for coal wagons. They must be made to by reluctant right-wing governments who are eyeing up their potential royalty revenues rather than prioritising the health of those they represent.
* Queensland Rail's website may help to clarify the rail system
** Australia's national air quality standards need to be updated. Currently they exist only for PM10s and not the smaller particulates, PM2.5s, which are particularly damaging to health since they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. See here for more information about the size of particulates.