Coal dust health worries for Ipswich train commuters
A GROUP of concerned residents is calling on the State Government to prove coal dust and diesel fumes from trains passing through Ipswich Station isn't posing a health risk to residents and passengers.
Ipswich Station is the only place in the country where uncovered coal trains pass through an enclosed passenger terminal, a situation experts say is far from acceptable.
The State Government says the levels of dust are safe and well below air quality guidelines, however, the closest permanent monitoring station is at Flinders View - some seven kilometres away.
Coal Line Ipswich, led by Jim Prentice, wants the State Government to install air quality monitoring equipment inside the station to accurately measure the pollution caused by dust coming off the wagons.
Mr Prentice says, at the very least, that will help the community devise an effective management plan for the dust, an issue that is even more pressing with the approval of Acland Stage three looming.
"Without monitoring inside the station we can't possibly capture what the elderly and every day commuters are being exposed to each day," Mr Prentice says.
Each week up to 120 trains carrying coal, freight and other agricultural products from out west pass through Ipswich Station on the way to Brisbane Port where 6.8 million tonnes of coal was exported between December 2014 and December 2015.
If Acland is approved that volume is likely to double.
There is a $300 million long term plan, announced by the Federal Government in 2013, to divert the trains around major town centres including Ipswich.
But Mr Prentice says that won't solve the problem for all the affected residents with trains still passing close to residential areas - and it's still at least seven years away.
"If we have proper monitoring that will help us figure out how to mitigate the problem until the line is diverted," Mr Prentice says.
"The procedures of control aren't tight enough. We're asking the government to, at the very least, ensure these wagons are properly sealed so people near the coal lines don't breathe in the dust."
The State Government isn't denying dust from coal wagons is deposited along the line and since May 2013 veneering, a spray designed to stop the spread of dust, has been used on the wagons.
Yet experts disagree, saying the veneering hasn't been independently proven to be effective and that there is no safe level of exposure to the particle pollution left behind by coal dust.
According to the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, monitoring along the rail corridor has shown the levels of dust to be safe.
The Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation is conducting ongoing monitoring along the corridor until at least March 2017 following three separate periods of monitoring between March 2013 and June 2014.
According to the state government the acceptable levels of exposure - in a 24 hour period - to the two types of pollutants that pose the biggest risk to health, PM10 and PM2.5, are 50 µg/m³ and 25 µg/m³.
Hourly data from the Flinders View monitoring station, available online yesterday showed the levels of PM10 as 17.7. There is no data for PM2.5, the smaller particles considered to present the most risk to human health.
"The monitoring has shown that while coal dust and the influence of coal trains on dust levels has been detected, the levels of total dust (including coal dust) are well below air quality objectives for the protection of human health and amenity impacts," a department spokesperson said in a written statement.
"Dust mitigation measures implemented by all coal companies from 2014 have been and continue to be effective in reducing the loss of coal dust from loaded rail wagons during transport."
Environmental Justice Australia researcher James Whelan says that covering the wagons, at a cost of between $5 and $10 per wagon, per trip, is the most effective way to reduce particle pollution.
"If there is an argument to cover coal trains anywhere at all, it is at Ipswich Station," Mr Whelan says.
"And it's not just about the full wagons passing through that have been sprayed. Actually there is significantly more coal dust pollution associated with an empty wagon - where the wind is whipping through and pulling out the remnants - than in a full wagon.
"Between 1% and 3% of coal is lost through transit. We've done the maths and the cost of covering the wagons would be less than the cost of losing that much coal."
Most rail transport related dust comes from particles deposited on the track being kicked back up by passing trains, however as Mr Whelan points out, if the wagons were covered there would be significantly less dust left behind.
It's not the fine, visible black dust that causes the most health issues - it's the smaller particles, known as PM2.5, that pose the biggest risk.
"This is not a good look for Ipswich," Mr Prentice says. "It's inconsistent with this residential, clean energy, futuristic style city we are moving towards."