Upper Hunter communities have been forced to pursue legal advice as the New South Wales government curtails residents’ attempts to investigate and regulate the region’s air pollution levels.
The most recent Upper Hunter Air Quality Network data shows pollutants frequently exceeded air quality standard threshold levels, exposing residents to serious health and mortality risks. A recent Harvard study finds long-term exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulate air pollution) is associated with higher death rates for people infected with COVID-19, while another international study finds long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide also increases the death risk from COVID-19.
Yet most of the Upper Hunter’s pollution monitors have inadequate measurement capabilities and levels are not reported to the National Environmental Council because the government runs another paralell air monitoring network set up with coal mines and power station operators.
The Hunter Environment Lobby is among community groups that have instructed Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) for legal advice after fruitless efforts to obtain and report meaningful air monitoring data from government sources.
EJA has written to the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment as well as Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean, seeking specific data and compliance information, but has received conflicting and stonewalling responses.
Among the official information about air quality monitoring, later contradicted by the state government, is that the Upper Hunter is deemed ‘two distinct regions’ and therefore does not need to be monitored under the National Environmental Protection (Air Quality) Measure. Officially, a ‘region’ must contain population centres of more than 25,000 people. According to 2016 data, the Upper Hunter has a population of 30,658.
Nick Witherow, Principal Lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia said:
“We have serious concerns about the accuracy and adequacy of National Environmental Protection (Air Quality) Measure data for New South Wales.
“The Upper Hunter Air Monitoring Network only collects a fraction of what is required. It primarily collects PM10 data, rather than the full suite of pollutants required under the National Environmental Protection (Air Quality) Measure.
“The most toxic particulates for people’s health is PM2.5. Only three of the region’s fourteen monitoring stations collect data about PM2.5.
“New South Wales has excluded the Upper Hunter from its NEPM Monitoring network because the Upper Hunter appears to be classified as two sub-regions, thereby avoiding monitoring and reporting of exceedances of air quality standards to the National Environmental Council.
“This is slap in the face to Upper Hunter residents because it says: ‘We don’t care about you’. People who live near power stations are already suffering an unacceptable health burden and they have a right to know the pollution levels in the air they breathe.
“This is especially important with international studies suggesting air pollution contributes to COVID-19 deaths.
“The New South Wales government must get serious about cutting toxic air pollution from the country’s biggest sources to improve the health of people living in the Upper Hunter and ensure they are more resilient to health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We also need the EPA and the Minister to release a clean air strategy that gives the power to enforce standards and reduce pollution from the major contributors.”
Jan Davis, President of Hunter Environment Lobby said:
“Once again, the people of the Hunter have been tricked by government obfuscation. We have been trying to get to the bottom of this ‘Upper Hunter is two regions’ mantra for years.
“It is just a handy way of hiding the truth that governments have not been looking after the people or the environments of our precious Valley. Our health is being overlooked. We need more adequate air quality monitors that measure the 2.5PMs for a true and accurate picture in real time for the health of people and the environment.
“Added to the already overburdened air quality from open cut coal mine operations, it can be seen that our air shed here in the Upper Hunter is one of the most severely impacted in Australia.
“This is just not good enough. Thousands of people suffer with asthma-related effects, as well as the increase in heart and lung problems we find with increased air pollution, our lives are made shorter just by living here.”
Health effects of power station air pollution
Power stations are the dominant source of Australia’s fine particle pollution PM2.5 (25% of the national ‘all sources’ total), oxides of nitrogen NOx (25%), and sulfur dioxide SO2 (49%) – some of the air pollutants most toxic to human health.
Toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations causes a range of serious health issues including asthma, stroke, heart attack, reduced lung function and premature death in communities as far as hundreds of kilometres away. In a 2018 case study, epidemiologist Dr Ben Ewald estimated that 279 people die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic air pollution from the five coal-fired power stations in New South Wales alone. In addition, exposure caused 233 babies born with reduced birthweight, 361 people to develop type 2 diabetes and 2,614 years of life lost each year.
Particle pollution (PM2.5, PM10): Particles in the PM10 size range are commonly present in air and may be drawn into the body with every breath. In the lungs, particles can have a direct physical effect and/or be absorbed into the blood. Airborne particles may also be swallowed. Absorption of the toxic material into the blood may lead to allergic or hypersensitivity effects, bacterial and fungal infections, fibrosis, cancer, irritation of mucous membranes, increased respiratory symptoms, aggravation of asthma and premature death. The risks are highest for the elderly and children. There is no threshold below which health effects do not occur. (Source: NPI)
Sulfur dioxide (SO2): Exposure can induce headaches and anxiety. People with existing heart or lung conditions, such as asthma, are at increased risk. Repeated or prolonged exposure to moderate concentrations may cause inflammation of the respiratory tract, wheezing and lung damage. It has also proved to be harmful to the reproductive systems of animals in experiments and caused developmental changes in their newborn. (Source: NPI)
Oxides of nitrogen (NOX): Low levels of NOX exposure can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs and can lead to coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness and nausea. Exposure can also result in a build-up of fluid in the lungs for 1-2 days after exposure. Breathing high levels of oxides of nitrogen can cause rapid burning, spasms and swelling of tissues in the throat and upper respiratory tract, reduced oxygenation of tissues, a build-up of fluid in the lungs, and even death. Skin or eye contact with high concentrations of oxides of nitrogen gases or nitrogen dioxide liquid will likely lead to serious burns. (Source: NPI)
Mercury: Mercury will enter the body if we breathe in contaminated air, drink contaminated water, eat contaminated food, or have our skin come into contact with it. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Exposure to high levels of any types of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing foetus. Effects on brain functions may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing and memory problems. Mercury also accumulates in the body. (Source: NPI)
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is self-reported by industry and not audited, but it is Australia’s most comprehensive source of air pollution data. The Federal Government publishes the NPI annually from information supplied by various industries, compiled by the states and territories.
EJA’s analysis (Excel) of the National Pollutant Inventory is available here.