UN says it’s time to protect

the health of the Central Coast

The draft statement issued by United Nations Special Rapporteur, Dr Marcus Orellana, after his recent meeting with Future Sooner, the community, and various environmental organisations at Chain Valley Bay Community Hall, makes it clear that it’s time for the NSW government to take action to protect the health and wellbeing of its citizens.

60 million tonnes of toxic coal ash at Lake Macquarie and 1.9 million tonnes is added each year from Eraring and Vales Point power stations.

13 September 2023


FUTURE SOONER spokesperson Gary Blaschke OAM said that the UN draft 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 says 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,” said Mr Blaschke.


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


“Future Sooner presented the 16 recommendations from the Coal-Ash Inquiry to the UN identifying how many of those recommendations have been actioned by the NSW government. To date – none.


“The Coal Ash Inquiry was unanimous in its findings. Daniel Mookhey was the Chair of that Inquiry. He is now the NSW Treasurer.


“There were over 100 people at the 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.


“It’s time for the NSW government to deliver. The Coal Ash Inquiry Committee knows it. The residents know it. Now the UN knows it.


“Now let’s see the government’s plan to make it a reality for the people of the Central Coast to live in a toxic-free environment.”


UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights, Marcos A. Orellana said that there was a deep disconnect or distance between the government and community narratives concerning toxics.


"Where the government sees efforts towards stronger regulations to address the risks of chemicals and pollution, communities and civil society denounce the capture of the State for the benefit of mining, oil, gas, agrochemical and other corporate interests," Mr Orellana said.


"This disconnect appears particularly acute between Indigenous Peoples and the government.


"More generally, it was brought to my attention that regulations in some states do not allow effective access to justice in cases of breaches of occupational health and safety standards, since only the regulator can prosecute them.


"Underlying the distance between the State and communities is the perception of tokenistic engagement. When public participation is reduced to a checklist, instead of being conducive to a genuine dialogue, then one of the fundamental pillars of sustainable development begins to collapse. And when that happens, dialogue is replaced by anger and distrust."


Mr Orellana was 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.


Of concern to the UN Special Rapporteur was the imposition of low penalties for violations of environmental license. Where the level of penalties is insufficient in severity to motivate compliance and secure deterrence, they are simply absorbed as a cost of doing business, while the toxic harm is imposed upon neighbouring communities.


Substantive environmental standards are key to protecting the right of every person to live in a non-toxic environment.


"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.”


"Rehabilitation is also cause for concern, Mr Orellana said, "and often the financial bonds for rehabilitation are insufficient to cover actual costs.


"Like other industrialised countries, Australia grapples with the challenges of managing contaminated sites, industrial chemicals, closing mines, among other sources of toxic releases. And like other federal countries, the country grapples with varying environmental standards among sub-national states," he said.


"The challenges are significant. And so are the opportunities: to learn from the past; to revisit and recalibrate, and to realign with international good practices.


Regardless of whether a federal environmental protection agency is created, the world needs Australia to lead on a range of toxics issues. If Australia is unable to ensure that mining does not pose toxic threats, what can we expect from other jurisdictions lacking the institutional regulatory capacity that Australia has?


"The most immediate and momentous opportunity for Australia is to incorporate the right to a healthy environment in its domestic legal order. Doing so will require not only constitutional or statutory recognition of the right; it will also require a review of a legal framework for environmental protection that is largely reactive and beneath international best practices.


"This is where human rights can guide the transformation of law and policy: to avoid legalising hazardous levels of toxic pollution, to secure respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples, to enable informed public-participation in environmental decision-making, to ensure the internalisation of environmental costs, to transition to zero waste and a circular economy, and to make the right to live in a toxic-free environment a reality for all."

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