Health risk for Newcastle residents from new coal loader project

27 August 2014

The proposed fourth coal terminal at Newcastle (T4) poses a significant health risk to surrounding residents and will reduce key habitat for birds and a frog species threatened with extinction, according to scientific experts appearing at the public hearing of the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) in Newcastle today.

Environmental legal centre, EDO NSW, on behalf of its client, the Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC), engaged a number of independent experts to present evidence before the PAC about the impacts of the proposed T4 project.

Associate Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle, Nick Higginbotham, said about T4, the transport and loading of an additional 70 million tonnes of coal annually will worsen air quality around Newcastle which already exceeds World Health Organisation and proposed national guidelines.

“Approximately 32,000 house residents and 23,000 school children attending schools within 500m of the coal corridor (between the Port and Rutherford) will be exposed to even greater concentrations of coal rail pollution,” Associate Professor Higginbotham said.

“The project will require an additional 19,420 coal train movements per year (53 per day) through Hunter suburbs, beyond the 58,250 annual (160 per day) coal train movements already approved.     

 “The diesel powered coal trains are a major source of toxic pollution, entraining uncontrolled carcinogenic diesel exhaust combined with harmful particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5).”

Other experts told the hearing the T4 project, on Kooragang Island, will destroy the habitat of endangered species, including migratory shorebirds and the Green and Golden Bell Frog.

The site for the T4 coal terminal is located adjacent to the Hunter Wetlands National Park which incorporates the Kooragang section of the Hunter Estuary Wetlands, an internationally recognised wetland, protected by the Ramsar Convention. 

University of Queensland biologist and migratory bird expert, Robert Clemens, said: “The Hunter Estuary, including the Hunter Wetlands Estuary Ramsar Site, is the most important area in New South Wales for coastal migratory shorebirds. In my opinion, the offsets proposed to compensate for the damage that T4 will cause, are insufficient to ensure that the abundance of migratory shorebirds in the Hunter Estuary can be maintained.” This is particularly true of the Eastern Curlew, a species which is not known to use artificially created wetlands such as those proposed to ‘offset’ the impacts of the T4 project.

Professor Graham H. Pyke of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), School of the Environment, said the T4 project will result in a significant loss of breeding habitat for the Green and Golden Bell Frog with minimal possible mitigation.

EDO principal solicitor Sue Higginson said the Hunter Community Environment Centre, as a community objector, would have had a right of appeal to the Land and Environment Court, in the event the PAC approves T4. “However, when the Government asks the PAC to hold a public hearing in relation to a development, that right of appeal is lost,” Ms Higginson said.

“Our client, HCEC, is determined to be able to present independent expert evidence about the impacts of the development, so has actively engaged in the PAC public hearing process.”

Ms Higgiinson said the most notable disadvantage to HCEC  is that, unlike in the Land and Environment Court, it will not be provided with the opportunity before the PAC to cross-examine the T4 consultants engaged by the proponent to put the case that the significant impacts of T4 are justified.