Hunter residents potentially exposed to toxic fumes and dust

Falling air quality in the Hunter Valley has angered health professionals who are demanding increased protection for residents from mining dust and blast chemicals.

The demands follow Department of Health advice to residents to head indoors to avoid potential contamination from toxic fumes, Newcastle Herald reports.

Doctors are also concerned about the long-term health effects on children who have been exposed to blast toxins and mining dust.

‘‘The long-term impacts can vary depending on the level of exposure but we do know that those tiny particles can get into people’s blood streams through their lungs,’’ Doctors for the Environment spokeswoman Dr Linda Selvey said.

The Department of Health has released a factsheet entitled ‘Mine Blast Fumes and You’ which advises Upper Hunter residents to head inside and close the doors and windows if they see a blast plume approaching.

The factsheet also explains some potential health effects exposure can cause.

‘‘Gases produced during blasting usually disperse rapidly and pose no acute health risk. Under certain conditions the gas plume may persist and can affect nearby people or residents who are downwind of the blast site,’’ the factsheet states.

It also outlines some symptoms from high-level exposure including eye, nose and throat irritation, coughing, dizziness and headache, shortness of breath or exacerbation of asthma.

The calls for increased protection come as residents prepare to present evidence of how their lives have been affected by poor air quality at a Senate inquiry in Newcastle next week.

One Hunter resident who is concerned about the health impacts of poor air quality is mother-of-five Di Gee.

Three of Gee’s children have been diagnosed with asthma, and 16-year-old Courtney is the worst affected.

 ‘‘I can’t prove it but I think her [Courtney’s] condition is connected to the fact that she was born at the start of the mining boom,’’ Gee said.

To improve her family’s breathing Gee has had her home air conditioned.

 ‘‘The reality is you can’t live in a bubble,’’ Gee said.

‘‘When the air changes and the dust increases, so does the asthma.’’

Recently released is the Environment Protection Authority’s Upper Hunter Air Particles Action Plan, which aims to improve the region’s air quality.

Ensuring mining activities remain within appropriate environmental and health standards is the aim of the Environment Protection Authority a spokeswoman said.

‘‘As a condition of operation, mines have set limits for ground vibration and overpressure [blast waves] as part of their environment protection licences.

‘‘When conducting blasting, mines are required to take wind speed and other environmental factors into account to minimise dust emissions and blast plume drift.’’

The EPA’s plan will provide better information about air quality and the actions under way to improve the region’s air quality.

EPA chief executive Barry Buffier said it was clear mining emissions in the Upper Hunter had increased and there is a need for government agencies to collaborate to improve air quality.

Thus an interagency taskforce with representatives from NSW Health, the Department of Planning and Infrastructure and the Department of Trade and Investment, Division of Resources and Energy has been established to improve collaboration and accountability.

The plan includes a particle reduction target, which aims to reduce emissions of particulate matter less than 2.5microns in diameter (PM2.5) in the long term.

“The initial target focuses on PM2.5 due to its greater potential to impact on human health,’’ Buffier said.

In total there are 18 actions outlined in the plan, which includes the Dust Stop program to reduce dust from mines, and a new initiative to reduce diesel emissions from off-road vehicles and equipment at coal mines, Buffier explained.

Late last month the NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker announced new dust pollution reduction programs for the Hunter Valley.

A move welcomed by the NSW Minerals Council, the programs use daily weather forecasts to plan on-site operations and to look for better ways to manage dust on haul roads and from overburden.

Late last year, the EPA also developed new blasting guidelines in consultation with the mining industry and is currently looking to adopt those guidelines in its licensing conditions.

NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said the mining sector has invested significant time and money into reducing the impacts of its operations. 

“Air quality is a very important issue and we do take it seriously,’’ Galilee said.  

‘‘That’s why the Hunter mining industry funds the Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network. 

‘‘That’s why we recently welcomed the release of the mine Pollution Reduction Programs by Environment Minister Robyn Parker.

‘‘The industry has also been working closely with the Environmental Protection Authority on the issue as well.”

Jerrys Plains resident Judy Hadley told the Newcaste Herald she believed the health and environmental consequences of the region’s mining operations would linger long after its financial benefits had past.

‘‘It seems that our government, which represents all of us, doesn’t seem too fussed about sacrificing small towns and the people in them for the greater good,’’ she said.

In December Australian Mining reported community group Coal Terminal Action Group had raised funds to buy its own industry-standard air quality monitoring equipment and planed to begin monitoring air quality along the Hunter coal corridor.

“Communities in the Hunter Valley are increasingly worried about coal dust and its health impacts, especially with new coal mines and terminals,’’ Coal Terminal Action Group spokesman James Whelan said at the time.

Australian Mining also reported that the Hunter Valley Protection Alliance last year called for dust-level alerts to be issued in the same way as nuclear radiation alerts.

At the time the group wanted to see the current 24-hour rolling-average, which the Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network (UHAQMN) use to measure air pollution, replaced with real-time alerts.

The group believes people living in close proximity to open-cut mines should have the same protection as those living near nuclear sites, such as the Lucas Heights reactor.

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