Coal mine air pollution monitoring wildly in error

We have audited the monitoring of air pollution from coal mines in NSW and found significant errors.

Throughout NSW, the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) monitors air pollution at 45 locations. In the Upper Hunter, it’s five years since the OEH took over the 14 monitoring sites that were previously operated by the coal mines and power stations as per their consent conditions. A range of problems with the industry network prompted the change, including a lack of trust in industry’s self-monitoring and difficulty accessing the monitoring data. The state-wide network is best practice and allows immediate access to trustworthy data.

More recently, the NSW Government created an industry monitoring network in the north-west of the state, where Whitehaven and Idemitsu have five open cut coal mines. The OEH hosts the company data but does not audit or validate it.

In response to community concerns, I audited data from one of the four Namoi monitoring locations earlier this year and found significant errors in the data. More recently, I audited data from all four monitoring sites to confirm a pattern of negative values across the network. Up to two-thirds of the monitoring results for coarse particle (PM10) and fine particle (PM2.5) concentrations are negative. There is no such thing as a negative concentration of particle pollution (or any other pollutant) yet the companies are reporting concentrations that are well below zero.

The problem has been widely reported in the SMH, ABC Sydney and regional media. Local councillors in Gunnedah and Narrabri last week united to call for independent monitoring. A community group in the region asked EJA to write on their behalf to the CEO of the NSW EPA, asking him to initiate criminal proceedings under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (sections 66 and 219) for false and misleading reporting. Following receipt of that letter, Mr Buffier has until 12 February (90 days) to act. Failing that, a third party such as a community group can initiate proceedings in the Land and Environment Court.

This has unified the community in the north-west. Whitehaven and Idemitsu are in an untenable situation.

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