The hidden cost of coal

Feature Story - 28 October, 2012
"There are clear indications from the international health research literature that there are serious health and social harms associated with coal mining and coal-fired power stations for people living in surrounding communities."
The hidden cost of coal© Greenpeace

That is one of the key findings of a report being released tonight on the health impacts of coal mining. The report, Health and Social Harms of Coalmining in Local Communities: Spotlight on the Hunter Region, commissioned by Beyond Zero Emissions, analysed 50 peer-reviewed papers about the health impacts of mining in 10 countries. The authors reviewed overseas studies which found “higher rates of mortality from lung cancer, chronic heart respiratory and kidney diseases” in coal affected communities[1]. Australia has next to no such literature on this subject. Despite 200 years of exploiting coal in Australia, this report makes it clear that when it comes to health, no one has really bothered to try and find out what coal mining and burning has been doing to the people living amongst it. In this case, however, what we don’t know is still hurting us.

For years, people in coal-affected communities have suffered the adverse effects of coal dust. Two years ago, Greenpeace spoke to a family in the Hunter about their struggles with respiratory illness.

Each month, the NSW Department of Planning Singleton Office produces compliance reports detailing complaints about the coal mines. Today, the latest report has been released. The Singleton office received 37 complaints in September, nearly half of which were about dust. Twelve were for noise and six for blasting[2].

People are complaining, and the NSW Department of Health is backing up their fears.

A letter from a representative of Hunter New England Health to the Department of Planning outlining their objection to the proposed Ashton open-cut mine next to the village of Camberwell shows why dust is such a problem: “Currently, Camberwell Village is significantly affected by Air Quality impacts associated with coal mining activity. The additional information provided by Ashton Coal indicates that residential dwellings will have further impacts associated with the proposed expansion and it is likely that given approval, the cumulative impacts will result in the population being exposed to additional and unacceptable 24-hour average and annual average PM10 exceedances to those that currently occur. It is therefore considered unacceptable for the residents of Camberwell Village to be exposed to further addition of PM10 concentrations as a result of this proposed expansion.”[3]

In June, the Department of Health wrote to the Planning and Assessment Commission, making clear that dust increases of the scale seen in the village “have been associated with increases in human mortality and morbidity in a wide range of populations and there is no known threshold for which these effects are considered not to occur.”[1]

The Ashton mine has was approved by the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission three weeks ago.

This is not a problem particular to Camberwell. Several communities in NSW, including in Newcastle, Gloucester and Maules Creek are preparing to undertake self-funded DIY health studies to make up for the Government’s failure to address the health effects of coal dust. They shouldn’t have to do it themselves, but when the system fails to protect what matters most, the leadership shown by dedicated and fearless members of the community is the last resort to protect land, water and communities from the devastation wrought by coal.


[1] Colagiuri, Ruth et. al. The Health and Social Harms of Coalmining in Local Communities: Spotlight on the Hunter Region. Beyond Zero Emissions. 24 October 2012.

[2] Compliance report for September 2012. NSW Department of Planning. 29 October 2012.

[3] Letter from Professor David Durrheim, Hunter New England Population Health, NSW Health to NSW Department of Planning, 24 February 2011. Available here:

[4] Letter, Kerry Chant, NSW Ministry of Health 4 June 2012. Appended to final PAC Report, Ashton South East Open Cut Project.