Clive Palmer’s proposed new central Queensland coal mine poses a potentially toxic health risk to drivers on Australia’s main highway north of Rockhampton, experts claim.
Mr Palmer’s Styx Coal proposal, which prompted outrage in the wake of Queensland Nickel’s collapse, would also lose at least $441 million over its 20-year lifetime, according to figures in its own environmental impact statement (EIS).
Blasting on the mine site, which straddles the Bruce Highway, also would likely produce highly toxic nitrogen dioxide that could “gas” travellers, according to Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA).
“This alone is a sufficient public risk to reject the proposal,” the public health pressure group said in a scathing submission to Queensland’s environment department.
Styx Coal, a subsidiary of Mr Palmer’s masthead company Mineralogy, is trying to get its mining and environmental licences approved on Queensland Nickel’s Mamelon Station, north-west of Rockhampton.
DEA and other groups, including progressive think-tank the Australia Institute and Lock the Gate Alliance, have called on the Queensland Government to deny the licences for the 10-million-tonne-a-year coal project.
But Mr Palmer said the objectors to the mine were wrong about the public health risks and its economic viability.
Mr Palmer said drivers would not be exposed to the gas because “the blasting will be under a management plan”.
He said if critics were right that the mine would lose money, “they don’t have to worry about the project because they’re not investing in it”, Mr Palmer said.
The Australia Institute accused the mining company of “misleading” claims about its economic benefits in the EIS, including “overstating” future state royalty payments by $175 million.
The think tank’s submission to the Government said it “seems clear” that Mr Palmer was chasing government approvals to boost the value of the project on paper for a possible sale, rather than to build the mine.
DEA spokesman David Shearman, an emeritus professor of medicine from the University of Adelaide, told the ABC that the mine proposal was “a shocker” on public health grounds.
Explosives pose a high risk to drivers: submission
The DEA submission said Styx Coal would have open cut mine pits “on both sides of the road” and blasting with explosives posed “a high risk to people travelling on the Bruce Highway during mining operations”.
It claimed two-thirds of blasts resulted in nitrogen dioxide gas and “exposure to this gas for even a few minutes can cause severe respiratory irritation, pulmonary oedema”.
The state mines department, which was forced to tackle the problem of nitrogen dioxide risks in 2011 after central Queensland mine workers were hospitalised, published detailed industry guidance in February.
It included warnings that high winds drive toxic fumes “a considerable distance before dispersing” and that “any person exposed to fumes should be immediately sent to be checked by medical staff”.
DEA said toxic gas clouds spread up to 6 kilometres from blast sites.
“People in the Hunter Valley have suffered toxicity after driving through blast plumes, so this is a real risk to the public from the proposed Styx mine and is not addressed in the EIS,” DEA’s submission said.
Mr Palmer dismissed these concerns, saying the highway would be closed during blasting, which would “only take place once a month for less than a day”.
“It’s a remote location. There are not a lot of people living in the area.
“It’s an ideal location for that sort of activity. It’s not the Hunter Valley,” he said.
The DEA said the environment department should reject Styx Coal’s “sloppy and superficial” air quality statement, which used outdated standards and claimed “an important source of carbon dioxide is from burning tobacco”.
It also noted the mine was only 14 kilometres from a tidal estuary flowing into Great Barrier Reef waters, which it said raised pollution risks from cyclones and floods. .
Figures are ‘optimistic’: think-tank
The Australia Institute said Styx’s own figures suggesting a $441 million loss were “in many ways optimistic” and included “no financing costs and no cost overruns”.
“The Styx proposal is less about developing a mine and more about increasing the asset value of the project for the proponent,” it said.
But Styx Coal was “not viable without government subsidy”, the think tank said.
Mr Palmer said this was “not true because first of all … their document is going on low quality thermal coal not on coking coal, so they’ve got the wrong type of coal”.
“The Australia Institute’s a group of people in Canberra that have never been to Queensland,” he said.
“Every coal project they put an objection in. It’s not an objective assessment of things.”
Rod Campbell, the Australia Institute’s research director, said the figures were taken directly from the EIS and a report for Mr Palmer’s company by Economic Associates.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk blasted Mr Palmer’s push for a new mining venture early this year, saying he should focus on “the mess that (he) left Queensland Nickel in Townsville”.