Pool a priority over health

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As a ratepayer, it was a great surprise to hear of the $6.4 M Aquatic Centre to be built in Narrabri. Most of the money is coming from Voluntary Planning Agreements with the coal companies and the Narrabri Shire Council voted unanimously to approve the centre.

The crumbling road network and the mine affected communities of Boggabri and Maules Creek were overlooked and even the miners are privately questioning these payments. Management must work in the best interests of their shareholders, but acknowledge that this is not a good look.

Mining Company “Goodies”

Worse still is the corrosive effect of the debt which will lock in the council as a long term supporter of potentially inappropriate developments and give the illusion that the companies are supporting the community. This is not the case as any community impacted by open cut coal mining will tell you – it is air quality and health impacts that are the prime consideration. After all what can you do without your health?

While the Narrabri Shire has been organising its new pool, community groups, the EPA, the Gunnedah Shire and the Planning Assessment Commission have been calling for the establishment of a regional Air Quality Monitoring Network in the Gunnedah Basin in order to establish a baseline before large scale mining is approved. Despite this no working group that includes the community has been formed and no mining company has publicly outlined their position.

These calls are warranted as information provided by the Office of Environment and Heritage shows that background dust levels are already high and can exceed minimum air quality standards at certain times. Open cut coal mines are going to add to that dust load and there is very little margin for additional dust emissions before these standards are breached.

The Planning Assessment Commission questioned estimates of cumulative dust emissions and it is now time for a Health Impact Assessment to be carried out in the region. One of the goals of HIA’s are to ensure that projects such as open cut mining actually improve individual health outcomes and not negatively impact. Like air quality, it is important to establish a baseline of existing health metrics in our community.

Calls for a HIA have gone unanswered by Planning Assessment Commission and the State Government. This void should be plugged by the miners and it is a test for the Shenhua Community Fund who could use their $2 M to seed a HIA for the Gunnedah basin rather than pursuing name plate recognition on pools and sporting centres etc.

Of course one solution that is lost in the scramble for approvals is the underground mining option and the Maules Creek Community Council has long argued underground mining benefits all the stakeholders. No one stakeholder benefits over the interests of another and it is a win-win-win solution for the company, the community and the environment in the best traditions of the triple bottom line. After all, it wasn’t until mining in the Hunter moved from underground to open cut that the worst impacts were felt.

For cash strapped councils, the VPA’s are making them vulnerable to inducements that favour the development proposals over their existing ratepayers and guidelines need to be established. Priorities that focus on the affected areas need to be developed. Health, roads and even waste infrastructure should have precedence, with the goodies to come after the hard yards are won.