The curse of coal and government health malfeasance

Jun 27, 2021

Policies which prolong the life of coal shorten the lives of many Australians and must be confronted – they are preventable deaths. It is distressing that ideology and ignorance have come to this.

As a doctor I must present the medical facts to the Government and Opposition on deaths and illness from coal. They have a duty to listen and take action particularly in the aftermath of the Hunter by-election, the intransigence of Mr Morrison at the G7 and statements by Members and Ministers of the National Party on the need for more coal mining and coal fired power stations.

Gone are the days when coal-fired power stations were needed to run hospitals, homes and the economy. There were no alternatives. Communities knew the pollutants they breathed were a trade off for progress in society and they put up with it. They were heroes. Now they and their communities are the fall guys deserving our sympathy. Even today miners die from the suffocating black lung disease. an ongoing occupational hazard due to poor regulation of air quality which state governments are addressing but which still occurs.

For readers who are activists and constituents of Members who are coal advocates, here and here are two articles showing how a miner copes with and dies from black lung disease. Please send them and ask your Member if they are aware that these deaths are preventable by a transition to clean energy.

Coal mining is also physically dangerous as seen recently when five miners were seriously injured in the Anglo American’s Grosvenor underground coal mine at Moranbah. The Board of Inquiry
indicated a failure by the company to control gas which posed an unacceptable risk.

Coal-fired power stations in Australia are a dominant source of air pollution which causes the premature or avoidable deaths of around 800 Australians and thousands of illnesses every year. These harms start with premature births, 850 low birth weights and 14,000 children with asthma. Thereafter these children carry a lifetime burden of increased illness.

This air pollution is also a risk factor for a range of chronic diseases in adults including asthma, lung disease, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Imagine the hue and cry from the community if these deaths and illnesses were caused by a drug with inadequate warnings from industry and government These deaths in Australia are part of the 8.7m deaths globally each year from the burning of fossil fuels, which is 1 in 5 people, a staggering statistic. Death rates vary from 30% in Eastern Asia to 3% in Australia and Oceania.

Australia is deeply implicated in this misery as a massive exporter of coal, and by dragging the chain nationally on the transition to renewable energy and EVs. Australia State of the Environment data show that the resulting urban air pollution contributes to more than 3000 premature and preventable deaths per year resulting in 28,000 years of life lost and generating health costs of $11-24 billion p.a.

These externality costs resulting from the government’s energy policy are not included in budgetary considerations. They have become a “don’t mention the war” issue for clearly the ideological fixation on coal would become even more untenable if they were included in the cost of the product.

Politicians have to be adept at compartmentalising these miseries or they would not be politicians.

It is clear that majority community support for coal in a Hunter by-election resulted from the malfeasance of both major parties by failing to educate on health aspects on the mining and burning of coal. Such health education is vital to bring reform – the transition to clean energy.

Instead some Members demean themselves by engendering community insecurity with statements about keeping the lights on in case “the sun does not shine and the wind doesn’t blow” and by warnings of lost jobs in a life without coal.

It may well be that the prodigious health and ‘loss of life years’ costs exceed those of other externalities;-

These are fossil fuel subsidies which reached A$10.3 billion last financial year. State Governments spent $1.2 billion mainly through subsidising exploration, refurbishing coal ports, railways and power stations and funding ‘clean coal’ research.

The prodigious use of water by the coal (and gas) industry in Australia’s drying climate is often unlimited, not costed, unmonitored, and is a threat to the sustainability of Australia with special provisions outside the National Water Initiative recommendations.

In some regions this usage of water has considerable environmental costs by depriving native vegetation. The direct environmental costs are confronting mainly because of the abandoned voids
(big holes) requiring rehabilitation often without the funds to do so Filling in the voids in the Upper Hunter would cost between $12 billion and $25 billion, while the NSW Government holds just $3.3 billion in environmental bonds for all mines in the state, a problem which also exists in other coal mining regions.

It is unfortunate that the most steadfast support for fossil fuels is from rural and regional Members. Perhaps they recognise their own limitations in driving transition to clean energy which has been apparent in recent Coalition governments; they fail to, or don’t want to recognise the ill health they confer on some of their communities.

Ten years ago a community movement commenced work to close the Port Augusta power station and coal mine. Health education was a vital part of the journey for the power station spewed pollution over the town whose children had the highest incidence of asthma in the state. Doctors spent countless hours talking to communities which naturally wanted a healthy future for their children. The community group Repower Port Augusta coordinated action with Beyond Zero Emissions, Conservation Council of South Australia and others.

There was little political involvement in this transition and perhaps that is why it succeeded. Transition needs true community involvement, health education and explanation.

The essence of health care work is a life-long commitment to patients. This article tells of my distress and that of many nursing and medical colleagues with the unnecessary suffering and death caused by the coal industry and its dedicated government and media  supporters. We hope that this distress extends to all those making decisions on energy policy.

It is important that society acknowledges the vital role that many environmental organisations have played in educating on the harms of coal including Greenpeace whose study is quoted in this article.

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