Newcastle and the Hunter will continue to “unfairly bear the impacts of Australia’s air polluting activities” if the nation’s environment ministers bow to industry pressure on Tuesday and fail to implement tougher air quality standards, say environmental activists.
Federal and state governments undertaking the first review in nearly two decades of the air quality National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) will decide whether to tighten daily and annual particulate matter (PM) standards, where the biggest impact will be felt in coal mining areas including the Hunter.
Tightening the PM10 limit to the most stringent recommended level would reduce hospital admissions for lung-related conditions by 65 per cent, an environmental impact statement found. Restricting the PM2.5 level to the tightest recommended level would prevent 700 deaths per year.
Groups including Environmental Justice Australia and the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices have argued small communities in the Hunter are particularly disadvantaged under the current system. While they bear the brunt of air quality pollution from coal mines, their populations of fewer than 25,000 mean they are not protected by the standards.
“Any size population in highly industrialised areas like the Hunter coal fields should be afforded the same protections as the rest of the Australian community,” Hunter Communities Network spokeswoman Bev Smiles said.
Environmental Justice Australia spokesman James Whelan said the lack of action against mines for regularly exceeding existing air quality standards was “like imposing a speed limit that is never actually enforced”.
But the Minerals Council of Australia has argued against moves to have the NEPM standards in force in populations as low as 5000, or a tightening of dust particulate matter standards.
“The potential imposition of those standards on regulated industries, such as minerals operations, could have a significant detrimental economic impact on regulated industries,” the council said.