Too Many Questions About Open Cut Coal

At a time when the State government is negotiating the expansion of the Anglesea open-cut coal mine, people living in Anglesea and the Greater Geelong Region are entitled to be informed of the potential adverse health effects associated with the coal industry in general and this mine in particular. One of the buildings closest to the Anglesea mine is the newly opened Anglesea Primary school.

Each step in the processing of coal for energy presents potential risks to our health. Coal mining, processing, transport, burning and deposition of waste products all contribute to the release of fine particles, oxides of nitrogen, heavy metals and sulphur dioxide. All of these emissions can damage our health irreversibly.

Air pollutants from coal adversely affect all major body systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of death in the US: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease. There is an extraordinary lack of research and health data on coal’s contribution to these health effects in Australia as well as on the numerous other adverse affects resulting from exposure to coal combustion products, including asthma, impaired lung development and compromised intellectual capacity.

There is growing consensus within the medical community that there is no ‘safe’ level for fine particles (particles measuring 2.5 micrometres or less ie. PM2.5). These particles are so small that they penetrate deeply into the lung where they have the potential to directly cross into the blood stream therefore not only affecting our lungs but also our cardiac and nervous systems.

The State Government and Department of Education must recognise that there are always adverse health impacts near open-cut coal mines and these impacts will be worse in the young. Doctors for the Environment Australia is unaware of any appropriate comprehensive study into the health impacts on local residents to address the degree of risk.

The medical impacts of coal were inadequately understood when the mine lease was first granted in 1961 but they are now unquestionable. The government is therefore responsible for and must remedy the public health hazard that has resulted.

Many will argue that we need to mine coal for energy as it is cheap. Yet coal only appears relatively cheap as it does not incorporate the true costs in terms of health (local and public health costs, estimated at over $2 billion in Australia) and the environment (land and water use and pollution) not payed for by industry. A recent study from the Harvard Medical School estimates that in the USA the cost of the negative impacts of coal is greater than US$1000 per year for each man, woman and child in the country.

We ask that our State Government ensures an independent, transparent, comprehensive health impact study occurs before any further expansion of the mine. Furthermore, irrespective of whether the mine expansion occurs, are there plans in place to detect and monitor associated health effects and who will be responsible to ensure appropriate compensation occurs if and when they are found?

One of the questions doctors often use to aid our clinical decision making is “what would I do if this were my own family member?” We suggest that, in relation to a coal mine expansion beside a primary school, the State Government should ask themselves this question.

Dr Eugenie Kayak is Victorian chair, Doctors for the Environment Australia

Thsi article first appeared in the Geelong Advertiser and appears here with permission.

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