Cover the coal wagons: Blue Mountains Unions and Community

Concerned about the air: BMUC members Nick Franklin and Peter Lammiman at Katoomba station will act as citizen scientists and measure the air themselves, concerned by the effects of coal dust from trains.
Concerned about the air: BMUC members Nick Franklin and Peter Lammiman at Katoomba station will act as citizen scientists and measure the air themselves, concerned by the effects of coal dust from trains.

The Blue Mountains Unions and Community group is so concerned that there is no air quality monitoring along the Blue Mountains rail corridor – with the nearest NSW Office of Environment monitoring stations at Bathurst and St Marys – that they are taking matters into their own hands.

The group is borrowing a small air monitoring gadget for 30 days – the catalyst is to detect the impact on air quality levels from uncovered coal trains.

The lack of specific air monitoring through the Mountains was revealed as part of their ongoing campaign to get coal wagons covered as they make their way up and down the Mountains train lines, a BMUC spokesman Peter Lammiman said. 

About 16 coal trains pass through the Mountains every week, with between 45 and 60 coal wagons shedding coal dust into the air.

A 2013 Senate inquiry into the health impacts of air quality recommended that state governments instruct the coal industry to cover wagons, but in 2016 the Chief Scientist said further investigation was needed. 

The BMUC says there is an inconsistency between road and rail haulage requirements, with the Roads and Maritime website insisting on secure tarping to cover loads.  

“We’ve waited far too long for government action on this,” said BMUC president Kerry Cooke.

“If the government can’t get its act together to carry out monitoring in the Mountains we will get the job done independently. There’s a real double standard. One of our members was fined $400 for driving his ute with an uncovered load of wood, yet the government apparently sees no health risk from massive uncovered coal trains or dirty diesel locomotives carrying thousands of tonnes of coal over the Mountains week after week.”

The 50-member BMUC voted unanimously at their October meeting to raise their concerns with the state and federal governments and Blue Mountains council. Mr Lammiman said their group would continue to try to force the state government to follow the recommendations of the 2013 Senate inquiry.

Dr Sujata Allan from the public health advocacy group Doctors for the Environment said air pollution from the mining, burning and transport of coal increases risks of lung and heart disease, as well as asthma and some cancers.

“There is enough research world-wide, even in Australia to know the health effects in general from air pollution.” 

“Research from Newcastle has shown that every time coal trains go by there are big spikes in air pollution with potential impacts on nearby populations. Covering coal wagons and regulating dirty diesel locomotives would reduce air pollution,” Dr Allan added.

The NSW EPA’s Metropolitan Infrastructure regional manager operations told BMUC that in 2016 NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane released a report on coal dust emissions in NSW and said “further investigation and research is needed to better understand the nature and distribution of particles along rail corridors, and that industry should continue to implement exisitng dust mitigation measures”.  The investigations are in the “design and implementation stage”.

The NSW Minerals Council has said research suggested covering the wagons would be “an extremely expensive action” with little or no effect.

The BMUC will monitor air quality for a month and download the information through an app on an Android phone. An independent air quality specialist will analyse the data.