Exposing the toxic time bomb

From chronic illnesses to contaminated land and waterways, the Central Coast has been exposing the serious health and environmental impacts of coal pollution for years. Communities in the northern suburbs of the Coast have been calling for better regulation of toxic waste,  in particular coal ash dams, from the burning of coal in nearby power stations – but their cries have been falling on deaf ears. It’s time the government stepped up so that people have clean air to breathe and that they are safe from toxic pollution.

A concerned community packs into the tiny hall at Chain Valley Bay to express their concerns to the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Dr Marcus Orellana.

6 September 2023


ON Tuesday 22 August, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur, Dr Marcus Orellana and Halida Nasic, Human Rights Officer, travelled to the Central Coast to personally listen to the issues that residents have on the effects of pollution from coal and coal-fired power stations.


The UN is a powerful international body, and is uniquely placed to influence federal and state governments to put the health of our communities and environment first.


The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is an expert in international law and the law on human rights and the environment.


The Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights will investigate and provide detailed, up-to-date information on how the management and disposal of toxic substances and wastes impacts on people’s human rights.


Ahead of the visit, the Special Rapporteur called for submissions from members of the public that focussed on a number of issues including:


  • exposure to hazardous substances


  • waste management


  • energy transition strategy, including the implications for the generation of hazardous


  • substances and waste (for example, coal ash)


  • water bodies pollution


Central Coal community group Future Sooner lodged a submission with the UN inviting them to visit the Central Coast. The submission was so compelling that the UN accepted the invitation and travelled the two hours up to Chain Valley Bay.


The Chain Valley Bay Community Hall was busting at the seams, with over 100 people in attendance. The UN heard stories of air pollution that was causing multiple asthma cases and cancer rates higher than anywhere else in the state, water pollution where signs warn residents not to eat the fish from Lake Macquarie, fish kills and toxins in bird feathers.


Dr Marcus Orellana was also told about the hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal ash sitting in unlined troughs, called dams.


Speakers at the meeting included:


  • Kirsty Ruddock, Managing Lawyer, and Grace Huang, Solicitor - Environmental Defenders Office (EDO)


  • Jocelyn McGarty, Environmental Justice Australia (EJA)


  • Gary Blaschke OAM, Spokesperson, Future Sooner


  • Ingrid Schraner, Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC)


The major topics covered were: Human Rights and the failure of legislation;  air and water pollution of the lakes; chronic health conditions including asthma and cancers impacting 16.9% of a small township population.


Evidence was also delivered on how the community has raised these environmental and human health issues with NSW Public Health Units, Environmental Protection Authority, Local MPs and government authorities - all to no avail.


The UN also heard of the 16 recommendations from of the NSW Legislative Council Public Works Committee (Report 4 March 2021) on coal-ash dams, that to date, have never been implemented.


The NSW Government and its agencies have been slow to act on the pollution problems associated with coal fired power stations, despite recognising they cause serious health impacts for communities and environmental harm.


The audience was then given the opportunity to ask questions and to tell their stories.


When asked of those present who had been touched in some way by cancer, almost all of the 100 plus attendees raised their hands.  When asked the same question of asthma, three quarters of hands shot up.


The health issues that the Central Coast is facing is not just an environmental issue but a human rights one – the right of everyone living on the Central Coast to live in a clean and healthy environment.


The Special Rapporteur’s visit was a chance for the Central Coast community to elevate their concerns with an international body and to push for the UN to make recommendations for improvements to the way that toxics are managed and disposed.


To date, the NSW Government and its agencies have been slow to act on the pollution problems associated with coal fired power stations, despite recognising they cause serious health impacts for communities and environmental harm.


Air pollution from burning coal has a significant impact on human health – including higher rates of childhood asthma, low birth weight in newborn babies, heart and lung disease, and some cancers.


Over two million Australians are exposed to toxic pollutants from coal-fired power stations and it is estimated that the health impacts of coal fired power stations cost taxpayers an estimated $2.4 billion every year.


Dirty air is an invisible killer endangering our communities. This impacts kids in the playground, people shopping on the street and elderly people in the park.


Too often, the toxic toll of air pollution falls on communities that don’t have the resources to take on giant mining companies or private power station operators.


And it’s not just in the air people breathe. In addition to the health impacts caused by toxic air pollution from coal, there are also health impacts associated with storing coal-ash (a by-product from burning coal) in large dumps near waterways and communities. Coal ash stored in unlined ash dumps contaminates waterways with toxic substances like mercury, selenium, arsenic and cadmium.


The UN Special Rapporteur Dr. Marcus Orellana has been travelling across Australia gathering information and his draft report into the UN’s findings will be delivered at a press conference on 8 September.

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