The Climate and Health Alliance are calling for the end of all coal expansion projects in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia, stronger regulation of current operations and a transition plan for affected communities. These calls are not new in the Hunter Valley; however mobilisation against the coal industry is increasing due to the considerable expansion of coal production over the last decade, concern about health and environmental impacts including the contribution of coal consumption to climate change and proposals for at least 21 additional mines.
Coal has been mined in the Hunter Valley for the last two centuries. The Hunter Valley has 39 coal mines (22 open cut and 17 underground) and five coal fired power stations (Climate and Health Alliance 2015). The coal mines produce 145 million tonnes of coal per annum, 19 tonnes is consumed in the Hunter Valley and 126 million tonnes is exported. Exports are primarily to Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan with a rapid and strong increase in demand from China (The Centre for International Economics 2014). There are a number of transnational corporations involved in coal production in the Hunter Valley including “BHP Billiton, Peabody Energy, Rio Tinto, Vale, Xstrata, and the Chinese government owned Shenhua, as well as smaller operators” (Connor 2012, 31). Coal production is projected to increase to 243 million tonnes per annum based on the proposed 21 additional mines (Climate and Health Alliance 2015).
People’s health is damaged by air pollution from coal production including dust and pollutants from drilling and blasting, excavation, movement of overburden, waste removal, transportation from the coal itself and vehicles (Higginbotham et al 2010); unpaved roads and noise and light pollution (Climate and Health Alliance 2015). Air pollutants include “particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrochloric acid, volatile organic compounds and polyaromatic hydrocarbons” (Climate and Health Alliance 2015 p.12). The most significant threat from air pollution is particles of 10 micrometres or less (PM10 and below), which can travel to people’s lungs and blood stream increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke, are carcinogenic (Climate and Health Alliance 2015) and are associated with “aggravation of asthma, increased hospital admissions and premature death” (Higginbotham et al 2010, 260).
The cost of damage to people’s health from coal combustion in Australia is estimated to be $2.6 billion per annum and the cost in the Hunter Valley is estimated to be $600 million (Climate and Health Alliance 2015). Meanwhile the industry is subsidised by State Government which means “the people of New South Wales are effectively subsidising an industry that causes significant harm to their natural capital, adds millions of dollars to health costs, and limits their opportunities to diversify their economy and invest in other industries for a stable economic future” (Climate and Health Alliance 2015, p.31).
The most affected communities are in rural and regional towns near coal mines through to Newcastle where coal is transported for export (Climate and Health Alliance 2015). Vulnerable groups within this communities include babies, children and elderly people, Indigenous people, people with chronic ill health and pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory disease (Climate and Health Alliance 2015). Other industries in the Hunter Valley also affected by mining are farming, agriculture, viticulture, thoroughbred breeding and tourism.
Social movements calling for the protection of the environment, health assessments, tighter regulation, the end to coal expansion and greater public participation in decision-making have occurred throughout the Hunter Valley since the late 1970s (Evans and Phelan 2016). Since 2000, calls for health studies in the Upper Hunter have been made from the community, Greens Party, health professionals and local government councillors (Higginbotham et al 2010), and more recently climate action groups are advocating for a transition to a low-carbon or zero-emissions society (Connor 2012).
In 2017, activist Wendy Bowman, 83, is one of the last residents left in Camberwell, a small village in Hunter Valley surrounded on three sides by coal mining. She was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her hard battle to defend her land .