Dr Tim Senior writes:

Would you vote for a party that offered to poison you and your children slowly?

What about a party offering entry to a lottery where the winning region picked at random would get a catastrophe? It might be severe bushfires, it might be a flood, but it would be dangerous and expensive.

It sounds crazy, but those are exactly the policies being offered by most of the parties in the NSW election. Sure, that’s not the way they sell those policies. Their marketing is much too good for that. They know that wording might not play well in the electorate. Some parties will say that poisoning your children is good for the economy. Others will say that that without a chance of a catastrophe for your region, some people will lose jobs.

They know that most people won’t object because what they call this policy is “coal mining.” But coal mining is no less dangerous just because it has been going on a long time, and it has served us very well up until recently.

Recent decisions seem to indicate that coal mining now trumps all other considerations. Do we need food? No, let’s approve the Shenhua mine near the prime agricultural land of the Liverpool Plains.

What if your village is in the way of mine expansion? No problems, let’s just suggest that Bulga Village could be moved. Or let’s just make secret plans to massively expand coal mining in the Hunter Valley.

It’s seems clear, too, then, that mere health concerns wouldn’t trump the interests of mining. The surprising thing is that this isn’t an election issue. We’ll all happily be poisoned.

How can I get away with claiming that coal mining poisons us slowly?

I could mention events such as the Morwell mine fire. You will remember the fire burned for 45 days, and children, pregnant women and those with lung or heart conditions were advised to move out of the area. The report laid blame on the mine operator, with newspaper reports saying it “failed the community.”

Other mine operators do not have a blameless record when it comes to complying with environmental standards.

However, it’s just the normal operating procedure of coalmines that should concern us. Even the NSW Government put out a nice glossy pamphlet for people called “Mine Dust and You” which cheerily sets out some (not all) of the health impacts, and suggests those affected should see their GP, presumably to supply puffers and a new atmosphere.

A report from Sydney University shows that in communities near coalmines more people die of respiratory problems, cancers and kidney disease. Children get more asthma and have higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their blood. People rate both their health and their quality of life as being lower. More people are admitted to hospital (for very expensive health care).

Coal mining releases coal dust into the air, and toxic by-products into our water. And once we’ve dug it out of the ground, we insist on burning it, and this is where devastation can be wrought on a much wider scale, through the new Catastrophe Lottery!

The Lancet has called climate change “The biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” It doesn’t matter where the coal gets burned, it will contribute to an increasingly unstable climate.

The NSW Government itself has produced an excellent set of climate change projections for regions of New South Wales. We can expect 10-20 extra very hot days each year. We can expect increased rain in autumn and decreased in spring, having an effect on flooding, food supply and mosquitoes.

And we can expect more high-risk days of fire danger, extending back into spring and forward into autumn. Those are your potential prizes in the Catastrophe Lottery. To quote The Hunger Games, may the odds be ever in your favour!

I’m not sure I want to vote in favour of that. We need to be asking candidates what their position is on the slow poison policy and the Catastrophe Lottery.

Given that we need to keep 90% of our coal in the ground, any candidate who wants to expand coal mining needs to say which other coal mines they are planning to close to compensate.

They need to show their plan to afford the extra costs of health care (estimated by the Climate and Health Alliance to be $600 million each year just in the Hunter Valley).

They need to show where the tax for this will come from, especially if more people are off sick as a result of these policies. And then we need to vote accordingly.

Otherwise your only option is to look for a new air supply and hope you don’t win that lottery!

• More articles by Dr Tim Senior are here.


Further reading

Climate Council. Joint statement on the health effects of coal in Australia. https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/health-effects-of-coal

Castleden WM, Shearman D, Crisp G, Finch P. The mining and burning of coal: effects on health and the environment. The Medical journal of Australia. 2011 Sep;195(6):333-335.  https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2011/195/6/mining-and-burning-coal-effects-health-and-environment

Epstein, P. R., Buonocore, J. J., Eckerle, K., Hendryx, M., Stout III, B. M., Heinberg, R., Clapp, R. W., May, B., Reinhart, N. L., Ahern, M. M., Doshi, S. K. and Glustrom, L. (2011), Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1219: 73–98. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05890.x/abstract


* See Croakey’s NSW election coverage here. 


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