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Blog: Hunter coal – dirty, dusty and dodgy

Dr Tuan Au, a Singleton GP, has been banned by the NSW Education Department from going to schools in the Hunter to measure the respiratory capacity of local students.

Dr Au told myself and a group of local residents about these latest developments and his concerns that coal mining is damaging the health of Hunter locals when we met together in his Singleton surgery over the June long weekend.

He explained how many of his patients tell him that when they leave the region for holidays their children's asthma clears up and the family feels healthy, and when they return so do their health problems.

Many of the residents that I met with in Singleton are deeply frustrated at how the NSW and federal governments are treating their community. Their clear message was that governments need to learn the lessons from past experiences of managing asbestos.

Banning Dr Au from studying the respiratory diseases of young people, with no alternative plan to measure and track health in place, looks dangerously like another example of elevating the interests of mining corporate giants over the interests of local communities.

Dr Au has some very useful suggestions about how a responsible government would respond to the health problems in the Hunter.  

Before any new coalmine opens up Dr Au urges that baseline health studies are undertaken of the locals to determine levels of asthma, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, premature births and psychiatric problems and this work forms the basis of long term studies.

Dr Au also advocates that everyone in an area impacted by a coal mine should be entitled to a free annual health check and that the government should investigate sending local school children to a camp outside of coal mining areas so they are exposed to clean air for a few weeks each year.

Lee meeting with Singleton GP Dr Tuan Au, Singleton Councillor Lyn MacBain and local residents to discuss health impacts of coal mining in the Hunter

Air pollution dominated the conversation with most of the people I met on this trip. Singleton Councillor Lyn MacBain told me how the need to constantly clean away the dust from coal mines pervades her every day. Computers and other machinery are often clogged with dust. Everyone I met around Muswellbrook and Singleton suffered from a respiratory disease or someone in their family did.

I also travelled past Scone to catch up with locals at Bickham, the site of a significant community win that stopped the Bickham open cut coal mine. This was in 2010 when then Premier, Kristina Kenneally, accepted the advice of a Planning Assessment Commission panel and rejected the coal mine plan.

But the battle over this coal mine is back on as Bickham Coal Company Pty Ltd is now pushing for an underground mine. On this visit I joined locals to climb a very steep hill on a Bickham property owned since the early 1800s by the Wilson family. This gave us a spectacular view over the next valley - stunning country with a permanent creek and good vegetation cover but now scarred with a giant hole dug by Bickham Coal during the exploration stage for the open cut mine.

About 25,000 tonnes of coal was extracted from this hole in what is called a "bulk sample". No Environmental Impact Assessment was undertaken as this was at the exploration stage. It is outrageous that such destruction is allowed under an exploration licence. What Bickham has created for itself with this giant hole is a possible entry point for its underground operation. Maybe that was always the company's contingency plan in case their open cut application was knocked back.

If there is any decency in the deeply flawed approval process for coalmine applications, the Bickham underground coalmine should not even be considered.

The same objections regarding the damaging impacts on local water ways apply just as much with this underground plan as it did to the open cut proposal.

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