News & Media Opinion Pieces Mining and health; government versus the people

Mining and health; government versus the people

It is perhaps fair to say that in a mining boom most community concerns become subservient to the needs of government and miners and this applies in both developing and advanced countries. In the former the argument may be settled by force of arms, land holders versus the army. In the latter more sophisticated mechanisms are used to give government and industry what they want. Our role is to monitor and speak out on community health impacts resulting from this contest.

In Australia where we are in the midst of a mining boom for coal and coal seam gas there is unprecedented concern particularly in rural and regional communities. This is reflected in hundreds of submission to Federal and state enquiries, and by the formation of many community groups. It has become community versus government over development issues that were never debated nationally before they were initiated.

This article is intended to inform DEA members of the thrust of community concern and the health issues involved. Several examples with be described

The proposed Felton mine will utilise 13,000 ha of prime cropping land in Queensland. Like dozens of other community groups the Friends of Felton (www.fof.org.au) are conducting a public campaign against government and miner at their own considerable expense. The Queensland government’s belated proposed strategic cropping land policy can be seen as a reaction to these campaigns.  A second belated government response has been to float the proposal for a 2k buffer (exclusion) zone for exploration around towns.

On the buffer zone the Friends of Felton has responded to requests from the Department of Mines with an outstanding submission. When you read it you will find it is brimming with potential health impacts. The crux of the matter is exposed by the Friends.

Hitherto there has been too much reliance on the Environmental Impact Statement to control mining activity. It should be abundantly clear to everyone by now that the EIS is a mechanism for facilitating development, not stopping or even moderating it. The notion that EISs are ‘scientific and objective’ and therefore empowered to become the divine determinant of where miners should be allowed to enter and establish, is absolute bunkum. EISs are prepared by the proponent’s consultant and include a so-called ‘mitigation strategy’ designed to ‘control’ the externalities and make them socially acceptable. Thus the EIS methodology is inherently biased and never sufficiently cognisant of what individual mine-neighbours are likely to find acceptable in terms of externalities levels.

DEA decided to make a submission on buffer zones to the Department of Mining in Queensland:
http://dea.org.au/images/uploads/submissions/Queensland_Mining_Submission_09-11.pdf
The Department is not publishing these submissions; hence we publish ours on our web site.  Our submission describes an international literature on ill health in coal communities and the need for buffer zones of many km.

Let us turn our attention to coal seam gas.  Our submission to the Senate Committee is here:
http://dea.org.au/images/uploads/submissions/MDB_CSG_Senate_submission_June_2011.pdf
In section 3, you will see an analysis of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) performance and why health is not being considered in any depth. Many of the health impacts detailed in our submission were not considered before permissions to mine were granted. The EIA often deals with health and safety in the immediate vicinity of the mine and no more. Not included are the mental and physical health impacts on communities in the surrounding region, and the green house emissions which have widespread health impacts. For a broad understanding of the mental and community health impacts go to section 2 of our Senate submission.

Turning now to our review of the health impacts of coal mining and combustion published in the Medical Journal of Australia:  http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/195_06_190911/cas10169_fm.html
This produced considerable debate in the Hunter where there has been neglect of the health impacts of mining as detailed in the Higginbotham study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19884036?dopt=Abstract).  As a result of our article an immediate response from the NSW Government has been a reassurance of monitoring of existing mines for particulates (good!) and to announce research into health impacts in the local community. We must be aware of the likelihood that mining approvals will continue to be made whilst this research is being done. The NSW government need only read the international literature and institute a Health Impact Assessment process for new mines. But will they?

Our task is reform of assessment processes.

Watch this space.

David Shearman