Public misled by Environment Protection Authority over coal dust pollution

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The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has misled the public about dust from coal trains and ignored internal reviews that reveal the link between uncovered coal wagons and air particle pollution in the Hunter Valley.

Documents released under FOI and obtained by the Labor Opposition reveal that the EPA falsely claimed that there were not elevated levels of air pollution from coal train wagons, and covered up crucial facts concerning coal dust pollution in the Hunter Valley rail corridor.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is licenced by the NSW EPA for pollution caused by trains hauling coal from Hunter Valley mines to the port of Newcastle. The ARTC was twice required to monitor and report on air particle pollution from the uncovered wagons during 2012.

The NSW Government’s subsequent technical reviews of the company’s reports on this monitoring highlighted significant spikes in pollution as coal trains passed, and flaws in the methodology and data analysis. Yet the Chair of the EPA, Barry Buffier, and Environment Minister Robyn Parker made statements to the contrary, in public and to the parliament.

“Under its current leadership the EPA seems focused on protecting polluting industries rather than looking after the community and human health”, Shadow Environment Minister Luke Foley said.

“If the Minister has unknowingly misled the Parliament, as a result of false advice from the EPA leadership, she must correct the record immediately.

“And she needs to put a broom through the most senior ranks of the EPA. This state needs an environmental regulator that acts to protect the community and our environment.”

Government documents reveal the cover-up:

• Environment Minister Robyn Parker told the Parliament on 2 April 2 2013, "the first study did not identify elevated levels of coal dust". Yet a technical review of the study conducted by the Office of Environment & Heritage science section in March 2013 found “a very strong relationship between train passage and a spike in air particles”.

• The technical review found that “there are several deficiencies with the report or the study, all of which contribute to problems in accepting the report’s conclusions”. Despite this, the EPA wrote to ARTC in May 2013 advising that it “considers the overall methodology used in the monitoring program to be sound”.

• A one page review of the ARTC report by OEH Air Policy/Science contains numerous criticisms of the report’s approach and methodology, concluding: “OEH science cannot support the sentence ‘an acceptable methodology was used for the monitoring program and the results and conclusions of the report are valid.’"

• EPA’s Air Technical Advisory Services Unit review, 29 May 2013:

“Loaded and unloaded trains were associated with a statistically significant elevation in PM concentrations when compared with the concentrations recorded when no train was passing the monitoring station.

“Several finding(sic) appear to be incorrect. The report states that there was no statistically significant difference in concentrations of TSP, PM10 and PM2.5 between train types. However based on the data presented in Figures 7 and 8 and Table 9 there is a statistically significant difference in TSP and PM 10 concentrations between unloaded coal trains and passenger trains.”