Calls to cover coal trains in the Illawarra

The Illawarra has got behind a statewide campaign calling on the government to order the coal industry to cover its rail wagons to protect community health.

Wollongong Greens councillor Jill Merrin, along with concerned residents, will circulate a petition at shops and train stations across the region in the coming weeks, seeking support for the plan.

The Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC) launched the petition last week, in partnership with community groups in coal-affected regions across the state.

The group aims to gather more than 10,000 signatures by the end of March, triggering a parliamentary debate on the issue.

Cr Merrin said residents living near the rail line had long been concerned with the health risks of uncovered coal wagons.

‘‘It’s bad enough having your house covered in soot but imagine breathing that stuff in,’’ she said.

‘‘Research has shown that coal dust contributes to a range of respiratory and cardiovascular health problems and when you’ve got 50 coal trains coming through the area on a single day, it creates a huge amount of dust – it’s a real concern.’’

The national standard for PM10 (particles up to 50microns in diameter) is 50micrograms per cubic metre.

According to the HCEC, community groups in Newcastle monitored PM10 levels up to three times this in residential areas.

Pollution levels increased by up to 1300per cent as coal trains passed by, the HCEC said.

Cr Merrin said past air quality studies had also shown elevated PM10 levels in the Illawarra.

The HCEC petition has emphasised the low cost of covering coal wagons, claiming the industry would also benefit from the move.

Coal wagons had been covered in areas such as central Australia where mines were worried about losing material.

‘‘It’s not just about the health problems – between 1 and 3per cent of coal is lost in transit between mines and ports, so covering wagons would really prevent that loss, it’s a win for the coal companies too,’’ she said.

Cr Merrin plans to talk to local MPs on the issue, as well as the general public.