Coal ash dam, Port Augusta GP speaks out

Dr Amanda Bethell is a general practitioner who has been practising in Port Augusta for the past six years. She has since been awarded Australia’s General Practitioner of the year in 2017, in recognition of her dedication to her patients, roles in teaching and advocacy work in the Port Augusta community. She is also a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. 

This year, Dr Bethell was part of the Dust Busters group in Port Augusta and was the face of a Greenpeace campaign, pushing for resolution of the environmental and health impacts caused by coal-fired power stations in Port Augusta. 

DEA SA Committee member, Leanne Nguyen, caught up with Dr Bethell to talk to her about health impacts relating to increased dust storms events in the region after the closure of Port Augusta’s two coal-powered stations and what has motivated her to take-action as a medical professional.

As a local, how would you describe the dust storm events? 

It’s mainly that it’s very windy and when the wind direction is coming from the right way and the right speed, you can see this plume of dust coming off the power station, other times you can see it as a haze over the town. I think that’s what gets people angry - because it’s such a visual thing. These days its red dust that you can see from the soil covering, and before they covered it mostly with dirt, it was dark smoky sort of dust.

I didn’t realise the soil coverings were contributing to the dust events. Wasn’t the top soil layer supposed to address the issue of fly ash in the air?

The idea was to have a layer of soil to cover up the ash dam and prevent fly ash. The trouble is you have these huge winds that come right up the gulf straight onto the newly dumped dirt, so it just picks that up for everyone to breathe in as well.

In your experience who are those most affected by the dust events, what symptoms and concerns might they present with?

It’s mostly people with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic airways disease. 

Since working in Port Augusta, it’s always been my impression that there are more people with respiratory problems than there are in Adelaide. During dust events, you can expect more acute and recurrent respiratory exacerbations in the emergency department. 

Worsening day to day respiratory and hay fever symptoms from the dust are peoples’ main concern and, the fear of cancer. Lots of people have cancer in Port Augusta. We have a 1.5 cancer rate compared to the state average. People are pretty concerned about that. 
Can you recall what preparations were made leading up the power plant’s closure, and since the dust events what do you think about the actions that have been taken to address the community’s concerns?

At one point the community was told we had two more years of coal in Leigh Creek and that the power station needs to shut but it will probably be a couple years [until then]. Then a couple of months later, we’re told [the power station] will be closing in three months. It was very bizarre and seemed like a sudden change of mind. Then the state was subjected to all these black outs.

Since the dust events, there has been this pervasive sense of mistrust of whether [governing bodies] will get it right this time. For example, the monitors for measuring particulate matter in the air, at one point, were removed and now they’ve been put back up again. 

Of late there has been improved dialogue and transparency between the community, Flinders Power and the EPA. But whilst there is uncertainty of whether the top soil will be effective as a long-term measure, people are wary. 

It’s no surprise that the community wants answers. As a doctor, why do you think it was important that you were involved in this campaign?

Doctors are at the front line of treating the health effects of environmental problems - extreme temperatures, air pollution, storms and so on. We also have an education that places us well to learn, understand & explain the science behind these issues. We are empowered and respected members of our community, and with this privilege comes also the responsibility to influence for the good of our community.

My final question is why did you choose to join DEA?

I grew up like many of my generation, I suspect, with little awareness of environmental issues, other than “keep Australia beautiful”. As my awareness of pollution & climate change has grown, along with my family, I’ve been keen to know more about what can be done both as a family and nation to prevent further damage to our world and hopefully fix some of the mess we’ve made.  

A big part of why I joined was the connection of DEA with the Repower Port Augusta campaign which I joined along the way. I’m hoping DEA will further educate and support me as a GP to also try to make these changes in my workplace and clinical practice.

In March this year Senator Rex Patrick announced a senate injury into the disposal and management of ash by coal-fired power stations across Australia following the failure of the South Australian Government to properly address an abandoned power station site at Port Augusta. The Environment and Communications References Committee’s date to report was extended to October 18.

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