OPINION: Labor backs science on coal dust issue

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Originally published: Newcastle Herald, 15 February 2015.

By Luke Foley

There are few more emotive issues in the Hunter than whether coal trains should be covered. 

The debate has flared in recent years. The mining industry in one corner, so intrinsic to the Hunter’s identity and economy; communities along the rail corridor in the other, entitled to protection from industry’s ill effects. 

The final element has been the Newcastle Herald’s campaign. This has brought the welcome focus NSW needed to settle on a policy and get it right. 

On Friday, I confirmed that Labor will show new leadership on this issue that has so riven the Hunter. 

If elected in March, we will authorise the state’s Chief Scientist Professor Mary O’Kane to investigate and advise on the health impacts of coal dust pollution – and we will accept those recommendations. 

For the first time, NSW will expedite a process that gives primacy to the scientific evidence. In my mind, this is a critical first step to ensure any future policy to cover coal wagons attracts full community backing. 

The mining industry believes wood-fired smoke  is a bigger problem than uncovered coal trains. The Hunter Community Environment Centre are among those who have produced disturbing countervailing evidence. The Environmental Protection Authority suggests the main predictor of air particle pollution is not covered or uncovered coal trains, but whether trains run at all. 

Professor O’Kane – fresh off a rigorous report into coal seam gas – is universally respected. Ideally, her investigation would include a survey of international data on coal dust impacts and policy responses. It is critical that such a study be independent. All sides of the argument should be prepared to put their case to the Chief Scientist and abide by her findings. 

Getting the right policy has been my concern for some time. This is why I initiated a parliamentary inquiry into the performance of the Environment Protection Authority which has suffered a trust erosion under the Baird government. The inquiry report, tabled last Friday, is consistent with Labor’s position. 

If the Chief Scientist finds that coal wagons should be covered, then a Foley Labor Government will codify this as part of the licence conditions for coal trains. 

Labor’s  approach should be contrasted with the Coalition, whose Upper House members voted against the report’s main recommendation. Think about that. In the event the Chief Scientist says cover the wagons, the Coalition will refuse. 

The Greens won’t wait for an authoritative distillation of the science. If Greens policy is implemented there will be no wagons to cover.  

Labor is  concerned by the 8per cent unemployment rate in the Hunter and mining downturn. We are not prepared to whack another cost on the coal industry lightly. 

Human health has to trump all other considerations.  If the Chief Scientist finds that in the interests of human health, the coal wagons need to be covered, Labor will do it. 

Originally published as: OPINION: Labor backs science on coal dust issue