From hero to villain

When it comes to politics and looking after the interest of Australia’s citizens, there are more villains than there are heroes. Central Coast citizens, living in the north of the coast, beneath the shadow of coal ash-related cancers, have just been dealt a blow in their fight to protect human health from nearby ash dams.

20 March 2024

ALAN HAYES

 

LATE last year the Grapevine reported on the March 2021 the findings of the NSW Government Inquiry into Coal Ash dams, which had been made public. The Inquiry Committee was unanimous in its conclusions. It called for the Government to conduct an urgent inquiry into the health of residents living near the state’s dirty, old coal-fired power stations and ash dams.

 

The most damning statement from the Committee was that “the government demonstrated a complete disregard towards the health of its citizens”. Daniel Mookhey, then Shadow Minister for Finance and Small Business and for the Gig Economy, was Chair of that Inquiry and signed off on this statement.

 

Mookhey was then in opposition but now, as Treasurer, his position has curiously changed. It has been reported that Mookhey is negotiating with Origin Energy to extend the life of the Eraring power station beyond its 2025 closure date – continuing to let coasties living in the north to be poisoned.

 

Gary Blashke, Future Sooner spokesperson, said that residents who live near toxic coal ash dams and who every day breathe in dirty coal-fired power station air, have been shocked at the complete backflip by Treasurer Mookhey and his preparedness to sacrifice their health to these filthy, last century polluters.

 

“Future Sooner has presented damning evidence to the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), NSW Health, Local and Federal Government MPs and the United Nations (UN) about above-average cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases plus the abnormal number of cancers in communities living close to power stations like Eraring and Vales Point. Our evidence has never been disputed,” Mr Blashke said.

 

“After hearing all the expert and lived experience, it beggars belief that Treasurer Mookhey is even contemplating negotiating to extend Eraring. It appears that once you gain government your modus operandi is to completely disregard the health of your citizens.

 

“We call on Treasurer Mookhey and the Minns government to prove they’re heroes not villains. Close Eraring and Vales Point by their due dates and fulfil the recommendations of the Coal Ash Inquiry.

 

“Immediately impose tighter emission controls for these last century dirty polluters in line with the tougher European and American standards.”

 

In September last year the Grapevine also reported on the visit to the Central Coast and the meeting of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur, Dr Marcus Orellana, with the Future Sooner group.

 

Dr Orellana, in his UN statement singled out Vales Point coal-fired power station as a major contributor to the health issues facing Central Coast residents and is a salvo aimed directly at the NSW government.

 

In the report the UN said that “while coal-fired power stations have enabled economic prosperity, it is our community that has paid the price with premature deaths, terminal illnesses, asthma, and other serious health problems.”

 

The report also stated that Australia’s air quality standards are less protective than the World Health Organisation standards and slamed the government for allowing Vales Point coal-fired power station to still enjoy an exemption licence to pollute more.

 

There were over 100 people at the UN-Community meeting! When asked who had been touched by cancer the whole room put their hands up. When asked the same of asthma, three quarters of the room raised their hands.

 

Mr Orellana was also concerned about access to environmental information, which is critical to environmental decision-making and public participation.

 

"I am troubled to learn about significant delays in the processing of requests for environmental information under freedom of information laws. The issue of costs imposed on public interest organizations also stifles access to information," Mr Orellana said.

 

The UN report also found that draconian restrictions on the right to protest in several states was also very troubling.

 

"Peaceful protests are a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of assembly, and they enable citizens to mobilize their concerns and make them visible to public authorities," he said.

 

Yet Mr Orellana had been informed that judicial review of government decisions is strictly procedural, which invariably leads to negative environmental outcomes and political decisions do not reflect expert advisory recommendations.

 

"This links with the requirements founded on the right to science for alignment between regulatory measures and the best available scientific evidence," he said.

 

"It has come to my attention that ambient air quality standards in Australia are less protective than in other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)," said Mr Orellana.

 

"Moreover, certain industries have received exemptions from compliance with relevant standards. Where environmental standards are not robust, the outcome is legalized contamination. This can infringe on the effective enjoyment of a range of human rights."

 

The UN report found that environmental health costs have often been externalised on communities, who have paid the price with premature deaths, terminal illnesses, asthma and other serious health problems. Certain air quality standards in Australia are less protective than the World Health Organization’s standards, such as Vales Point coal-fired power plant that has been granted exemptions from existing air pollution standards.

 

The report also concluded that ash dams from electricity generation also posed a threat to groundwater and drinking water of local communities. Arsenic and selenium in groundwater have been reported. A 2021 parliamentary inquiry into the cost for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories in New South Wales expressed concern at the “complete disregard by the Government towards the health of its citizens.”

 

BACKGROUND

 

Recommendations from the Committee’s findings:

 

“Throughout this inquiry, the committee heard that one of the greatest concerns of inquiry participants is community and environmental health impacts resulting from inadequate remediation of coal ash dams.

 

“The committee agrees with inquiry participants that little research, if any, has been conducted on the impacts and long-term consequences in relation to the health of communities residing near coal ash dams.

 

“We are disappointed with the response by the NSW EPA and NSW Health to community concerns about a potential link between the circulation of additional metals in the air and waterways, and impacts on health outcomes for the community. This response, in conjunction with the lack of research conducted to date on this matter, demonstrates a complete disregard by the government towards the health of its citizens.

 

“Given this, the committee recommends that NSW Health immediately undertake an epidemiological assessment of the health of residents near coal ash dams to establish the health impacts of coal ash and publish by 31 December 2022.”

 

Facts about coal ash from the Inquiry evidence:

 

  • Epidemiological studies undertaken internationally show there are poorer health outcomes and some signifiers of poor health in, for example, children who live nearer to coal ash sites and coal-fired power station repositories than those who live further away.

 

  • Studies done on workers at these sites show markers of DNA damage when those workers' health has been assessed.

 

  • No such epidemiological studies have been conducted in Australia.

 

  • It is premature to assert that the communities are not suffering any health outcomes when those studies have not been performed.

 

  • Coal ash contains concentrated heavy metals that are emitted from coal-fired power stations – mercury, lead, selenium, and a whole range of toxic heavy metals that are otherwise not emitted into the atmosphere.

 

  • In the words of Daniel Mookhey, as inquiry chair: “…there is not enough evidence in New South Wales to yet make a determination either way, and we should therefore not presume that it is safe, in line with the precautionary principle…”

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