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Time to act on air pollution says man who became ‘canary in the coalmine’

Gasping: Uniting Church minister Wes Hartley and wife Beverley Biggs at Mayfield in 2013. Within months they were forced to leave after a doctor warned Reverend Hartley a respiratory condition could shorten his life.A DOUBLING of coarse particle pollution from coal mines in the past five years has left the Hunter with some of the state’s worst air quality readings in 2015, promptingawarning from theUniting Church minister who was gasping for breath within weeks of moving to the region.

“What surprised me most about living in Newcastle was the total, almost fatalistic, acceptance of an environmental situation that would be unacceptable in most other parts of Australia,” retired minister Wes Hartley, 69, said from his home in Busselton, Western Australia.

“The reality is that out of nowhere a serious respiratory condition emerged shortly after we moved to Mayfield in 2013, and within months my doctor was telling me I had shadowing on the lungs and I had to leave.”

Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) has called on NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman to make 2016 the year of committing to controlling particle pollution after air pollution figures for 2015showedNewcastle suburbs with some of the state’shighest 24 hour concentrations of coarse particle pollution.

Stockton recorded 24 hour coarse particle pollution readings of up to 101.4 micrograms per cubic metre in 2015, or more than double the national 24 hour standard of 50, while Mayfield recorded 84.7, Carrington 80.6, Wallsend 77.5,Newcastle 70.4 and Beresfield 64.9.

Sources of coarse particle pollution in Newcastle include uncovered coal wagons and export terminals.

Stockton also recorded the highest annual average of fine particle pollution, at 9.63 micrograms per cubic metre, or significantly greater than the new nationalannual average of 8 micrograms per cubic metre.

The EJA said all 14 of the Hunter region’smonitoring sites recorded exceedances of the 24 hour average for coarse particle pollution, with the highest concentrations recorded at Camberwell (86.7), Singleton (85.3), Mt Thorley (85.2), Merriwa (83) and Singleton South (82.5).

While Sydney and Wollongong recorded the highest 24 hour average concentrations of fine particle pollution in 2015, Muswellbrook with readings as high as 31.2 micrograms per cubic metre, and Stockton at 30.9, were above the new national 24 hour average of 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

EJA researcher Dr James Whelan said particle pollution caused a range of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and contributed to the premature deaths of more than 3000 Australians each year.

“There is no ‘safe’ concentration below which particle pollution does not cause adverse health impacts,” Dr Whelan said.

“Coal mining is responsible for almost half of annual national coarse particle (PM10) emissions. Coarse particle pollution from coal mines has doubled in the last five years and trebled in the last decade. Fine particles (PM2.5) primarily result from combustion processes. Major sources include coal-fired power stations, motor vehicles and wood heaters.”

In December Australia’s state and federal environment ministers agreed on new particle pollution standards, although NSW rejected calls from Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory to commit to World Health Organisation standards of 20 micrograms per cubic metre for annual average fine particle concentrations.

Dr Whelan said controlling coal dust emissions from uncovered stockpiles and wagons would be “a great start” to a NSW Government commitment to meeting the new national standards.

Reverend Hartley arrived in Mayfield in February 2013, expecting to stay for a lengthy period as the Uniting Church equivalent of Bishop of the Hunter.

By April he thought he was coughing, and within weeks was coughing to the point of exhaustion, vomiting without warning, unable to speak, lethargic, and experiencing breathlessness similar to chronic asthma.

“We moved back to Busselton where we had been living but it took me eight months living in a pollution-free environment to recover,” he said.

“I was, literally, the canary in the coalmine.

“I can only speak from my own experience as someone not used to the environment in Newcastle, but with more and more people moving into the Hunter I think it’s a factor that needs to be taken into account.”

A NSW Environment Protection Authority spokesperson said the NSW Government recognisedthe concerns of residents living in Newcastle and the Hunter and hadfocused significant resources on better understanding air quality in theregion.

“This includes two particle characterisation studies currently underway in the Lower Hunter that will provide a better understanding of the sources contributing to elevated particulate levels in places like Stockton and Carrington, and help focus regulatory efforts,” the spokesperson said.

“These studies are due out in early 2016. The NSW Chief Scientist andEngineer is also continuing her review of rail coal dust emissions management.

“It should be noted that elevated PM10 and PM2.5 levels in Stockton are likely due to higher amounts of sea salt in the area resulting from its proximity to the beach. Also, the figures for the highest 24 hour concentrations of PM10 emissions in the Newcastle area given by EJA were recorded during the state wide dust storm event on 5-6 May.”

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