Coal mining under extra scrutiny in NSW

THE Camberwell Cumulative Impact Review has found scant evidence of any impact of coal mining on drinking water, dust or noise on the village near Singleton in the Upper Hunter Valley. But the state government is developing a “strategic plan” for coal mining by year-end.
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NSW Planning Minister Tony Kelly.

Blair Price

Three months ago, the ABC’s Four Corners program created a lot of community concern about the potential health effects from coal mining dust and air pollution from power stations in the region, and looked into a possible cancer cluster in Singleton.


Camberwell provides a good case study as it is surrounded by coal mines.


Yancoal Australia’s Ashton operations and Xstrata’s Glendell, Ravensworth East and Mt Owen open cut mines lie to the north.


Bloomfield Collieries’ Rix’s Creek is to the south, Vale’s Integra complex is east of the village while Xstrata’s Ravensworth West, Namara and Cumnock operations are to the west.


The findings of the four expert reports in the government review were generally good for the coal industry.


Dust levels at Camberwell were consistently below the standards used by the state government to assess new mine proposals.


But there was a stretch of 10 to 28 days back in 2008 when daily dust concentrations exceeded the government’s short-term standard at monitoring stations in and near Camberwell.


The cumulative noise impact in 2009 was estimated to be 42-44 decibels “A” scale (dBA).


This was close but did not exceed the parameters set for rural areas.


But the state government is expecting noise levels to drop another 2dBA if the current project applications for mining in the area are approved.


On lead levels in the drinking water, these were found to be low and not attributable to coal mining dust.


Despite the findings, the state government will base two compliance officers in the Upper Hunter on a full-time basis, while an air-monitoring station will be established in Camberwell as part of the 14 stations to be set up under the industry-funded Upper Hunter Air Quality Network.


Planning Minister Tony Kelly said the review would help the government with its decisions on new mining proposals, existing mines, health studies and monitoring regimes.


“The findings of the various studies confirmed the government’s initial concerns that Camberwell was the key area of the Hunter Valley coalfields that warranted close attention in terms of mining-related impacts,” he said.


Kelly also announced he will chair a cabinet sub-committee which will bring together the portfolios of Planning, Infrastructure and Lands, Health, Treasury, Environment, Climate Change and Water, and Industry and Investment.


“This experienced, senior and balanced team has been charged with providing a coordinated strategy from government on coal mining, and greater certainty to both the mining industry and local communities across the state,” Kelly said.


“The sub-committee’s formation is, in part, a response to today’s release of the Camberwell Cumulative Impact Review and will look at mining issues state-wide.”


He added that the dust and noise levels at Camberwell should fall significantly once the Ashton North-East open cut ends in December.


“That said, a number of mine proposals near Camberwell may lead to additional noise and dust emissions, and will need to be carefully considered by the department.”


The NSW Minerals Council welcomed the new “whole-of-government” approach.


The industry group’s chief executive Nikki Williams said it should help to “demystify” the regulation regimes already in place and hopefully debunk some of the myths about mining.


“There are more than 570 pieces of legislation, regulation and guidelines applied to mining, making it the most regulated industry in NSW, but it is clear that some parts of the community remain concerned about the impact of our operations,” she said.


“Coal production is expected to increase to meet growing demand for exports over the coming years, which is why we all need a coordinated approach to assessments, development and regulation.”


On the Camberwell review, Williams said the expert reports showed the industry was meeting government standards.


“It is important that we continue with this fact-based, scientific approach to addressing any concerns.


“If problems resulting from mining are identified, we need to know the magnitude of the issues so we are able to work out how to deal with them effectively.


“That’s why we are funding the new Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network, which will improve access to information about air quality for the industry, regulators and the community.


“It will produce a real-time picture of regional air quality rather than readings about dust at a particular minesite.”