EDITORIAL: Time for covered wagons

A SENATE inquiry into the impacts on health of air quality in Australia has backed the Newcastle Herald’s call for the covering of coal rail wagons.
Nanjing Night Net

As a first response, the peak body for mining in this state, the NSW Minerals Council, has attacked the report as ‘‘Greens dominated’’ and ‘‘predictably anti-mining’’.

Arguing there is no evidence in the report to show how the committee ‘‘has logically come to its recommendation’’ to cover coal wagons, the minerals council cites long-term monitoring by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which found coal accounted for less than 14per cent of fine PM2.5 particles in the air at Mayfield.

In contrast, the committee cites a submission it received from the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to say that mining for coal accounts for 27per cent of PM2.5 particles in Newcastle, rising to 66per cent in the Upper Hunter.

In debates such as this, the temptation to ‘‘cherry pick’’ the statistics that best suit a particular argument can be difficult to resist, but there is no doubt – in 2013 – that particulate emissions can have a negative impact on human health. What’s more, as the EPA submission states, fine particulate emissions have risen by at least 20per cent in the past 20years, largely because of increased coalmining in the Hunter Valley.

In its chapter on coal, the committee report recognises the economic benefits of coal but says covering coal wagons is one of the ‘‘concrete steps’’ the industry should take to minimise its impact on communities.

The minerals council says the recommendation to cover the wagons ignores the evidence that shows coal dust from trains to be a relatively small source of particulates. In its submission to the inquiry, it argued against covering wagons, saying it would be ‘‘extremely expensive’’ and have ‘‘little or no effect on dust and air quality near rail lines.’’

As the committee noted, things appeared to be different north of the border, with the Queensland Resources Council acknowledging that chemical ‘‘veneering’’ of coal loads had significantly reduced dust emissions.

Whether coal companies like it or not, history shows that environmental standards tend inexorably to tighten. A ‘‘social licence’’ to operate is an important part of doing business in the 21st century.

Inevitably, it comes down to a simple proposition. We do not allow the relatively tiny amount of coal that is hauled on our roads to be moved uncovered. Why, then, should we allow it on rail?

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