Meeting with the NSW Environment Minister's People

Air quality is a “high priority” of the NSW government, but no promises for action – yet. 

Phil Hill, our Clean Air Lawyer, recently met with Bran Black (Chief of Staff) and Christian Dunk (Policy Advisor) from Mark Speakman’s office. Mr Speakman is the New South Wales Environment Minister. 

Background

The meeting follows a critical moment in our campaign for stronger laws around air pollution – the decision of national environment ministers to agree to new ambient air quality standards (for PM10 and PM2.5) and a new Clean Air Agreement to govern further national effort on air pollution.  Minister Speakman sided with the mining industry and argued for the least-strict national standard on PM10 of all states and territories. Given this, there was some scepticism around how seriously Mr Speakman and his staff regarded the issue of air pollution.

Introductions

There were three topics Phil was there to discuss: the implementation of the new ambient air quality standards, air quality monitoring, and work to be undertaken under the new clean air agreement.  Phil explained that we stood with over 100 community groups from around Australia campaigning with us as part of a Clean Air Action Network.  Mr Black and Mr Dunk appeared to have a genuine interest in the issue.  

So – how did the meeting go?

Air Quality NEPM implementation

Phil gave an overview of the well-established health impact research and sky-rocketing levels of PM10 being emitted from coal industry sources – one of Clean Air Action Network’s major concerns. Mr Black provided a new explanation for the NSW stance on the annual PM10 standard.

Mr Black went on to describe a technical argument to support a calculation that equates an annual PM2.5 standard of 8ug/m3 with a PM10 standard of nearly 27ug/m3. As the annual standard for PM2.5 was set at 8ug/m3, it was suggested by way of logic that the PM10 concentration should be established at something around 26 or 27ug/m3.  The evidence to support this wasn’t immediately at hand. 

It was this explanation that was not accepted by Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory at the 25 December meeting. 

Phil turned the discussion towards the issue of a state-wide major polluter licence review to ensure that major polluters were not permitted to emit toxic gases in excess of the new national standards. 

We asked:

That the NSW government would complete a full licence review of all major polluters within 12 months, and for there to be full consultation with community groups interested in these existing pollution licences.

The reply:

Mr Black was prepared to get back to us before Easter with advice on the state-wide process to be employed, but would not commit to any timeframe or process for the state-wide review.


Air Quality Monitoring and Data Access

The New South Wales air quality monitoring network (including the way the data is made publicly available to the public) represents best practice among Australian states and territories.  Phil praised the NSW government on this front.  However, he provided two pieces of advice. 

Firstly, he recommended a review into monitoring locations to make sure data was being captured near all relevant industrial sources. Secondly, he warned that the NSW government risked jeopardising their good reputation for monitoring and data access if they did not ensure that the newly announced monitoring stations in the Narrabri/Maules Creek area were integrated in to this system, with the same levels of recording and data access.  Following this warning, Phil sought an urgent commitment.

We asked:

That the NSW government commit to requiring the industry monitoring stations in the Narrabri/Maules Creek area to be integrated into the state scheme, with the same levels of recording and data access as for the state scheme.

The reply:

Mr Black agreed that although it would be a good opportunity to reassure concerned locals, he could not commit to this.

Phil then provided a copy of EJA’s Namoi/Maules Creek air pollution monitoring  fact sheet.

Clean Air Agreement

At this stage, Mr Black indicated that air quality is a “high priority” of the New South Wales government.  Phil mentioned there is some low-hanging fruit that could easily – but seriously – show the government’s commitment.  He proceeded to speak on the chronology of research and evidence to support the cost effective covering of coal wagons in NSW. Specifically, he highlighted:

  • That 3% of coal is lost from transportation
  • That more than 4 million coal wagons pass through suburban Newcastle annually
  • A 2008 study, which concluded that covering wagons would cause a 99% reduction in coal dust emissions
  • Pollution monitoring, which found that uncovered empty coal wagons cause an average increase in total suspended particles (TSPs) of 8-10% in coal corridors

Phil explained that covering coal wagons is cost-effective and sensible, and suggested that the NSW government could take that proposal to the next Clean Air Agreement meeting to showcase their commitment to improving air quality. He went on to seek a commitment on this proposal.

We asked:

That the NSW government require the cost-effective solution of covering coal wagons and include this work in the workplan of the national Clean Air Agreement for all states and territories.

The reply:

Mr Black indicated that they were waiting for a further report from the NSW Chief Scientist and invited us to correspond with her. 

Phil provided a copy of EJA’s Coal Wagons and Coal Dust fact sheet.

Thoughts:

It is a positive development that the NSW Environment Minister’s office has opened up a dialogue with the Clean Air Action Network, but we are yet to secure any real and meaningful commitment to take action against major polluters in NSW. 

Phil was very clear that we will continue to hold governments to account for communities struggling with air pollution impacts, and that we would continue to help concerned communities make their voice heard.

The ball is in Mr Speakman’s court. We have provided the information and advice on the easiest ways to show that air pollution is a “high priority” of the NSW government, we will be watching carefully in coming months.   

Further reading:

 

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