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Plans to mine lignite in Southland - and possibly Otago - have raised fears of potential health hazards, issues that will be canvassed at a "Keep the Coal in the Hole" festival in Mataura this weekend, writes surgeon Russell Tregonning.
Despite the known health hazards of coal mining, in September 2010, Bill English opened state-owned Solid Energy's pilot scheme near Mataura, to convert 150,000 tonnes of lignite to briquettes (dehydrated lignite used as a solid fuel). This was the first step in the creation of what may be New Zealand's largest industrial project.
They plan a briquette plant 10 times larger, to be followed by a plant to convert lignite to urea (a nitrogen fertiliser for local and overseas markets). This will produce twice the amount of urea used in New Zealand.
The really grandiose and dangerous final plan, however, is to convert lignite to diesel fuel in two huge plants, producing about 85,000 barrels of diesel a year - one and two-thirds the amount used in New Zealand.
Why are these plans health-threatening?
Because burning lignite releases high volumes of CO2, the most important greenhouse gas. It does this more than any other form of coal. Lignite is dirty coal containing high moisture and low energy. Diesel from lignite releases twice as much CO2 as oil-derived diesel.
Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere causes climate change. The World Health Organisation now lists climate change as the number one threat to global health. Climate change is already happening, causing sea levels to rise, more extreme weather (drought, floods, storms) and threats to water and food supplies.
There are other local health hazards from coal. It contains many harmful heavy metals.
These are inhaled via coal dust, with possible damage to body organs (particularly the lungs, heart and kidneys) and also, possibly causing strokes.
Clusters of various cancers have been found in people living around coal mines. Noise pollution and dust caused by blasting, heavy machinery and transport vehicles also have negative effects.
What is Solid Energy planning to reduce the health risks?
One proposal is carbon capture and storage (CCS), but they're mining without it, anyway. CCS is still experimental, largely due to its extremely high costs, and leaks from storage reservoirs are potentially dangerous. No suitable reservoirs have been found around the proposed mines. Despite the rhetoric from the coal industry on CCS worldwide, CCS remains a pipe dream.
Our Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, points out that New Zealand is already on track to exceed by 30% our internationally promised greenhouse gas emissions target of 10%-20% cuts by 2020. Lignite-to-diesel plans could add a further 50% to that. Buying carbon credits to offset the excess will cost: we could also kiss our "clean, green image" goodbye, giving comfort to our export competitors.
Are there alternative energy sources with low health risks?
The answer is an emphatic yes.
We have abundant hydro, wind, geothermal and solar resources, also possibly wave. Our biomass potential is vast, as we grow trees like few other places on earth. The low-carbon economy is the answer, not digging up dirty coal.
Solid Energy (3000ha) and L&M (more than 20,000ha) have exploration permits on farmland in Southland and the Maniototo.
One Mataura farmer will not sell and is offering his land for the " Coal summer camp" this weekend. Workshops will be held to discuss and plan action to prevent the expansion of lignite mining. Many family activities are planned.
New Zealand scientists and medical doctors will discuss the effects of lignite and a visiting Australian farmer will recount the impacts of open cast mining in that country.
The title of the Mataura festival is " Keep the Coal in the Hole", the only rational response to the major potential health risks.
To find out more and register, visit the website http://nocoalsummerfest.org.nz/information
- Russell Tregonning is a Dunedin-raised and trained orthopaedic surgeon working in Wellington. He is also a past-president of the NZ Orthopaedic Association and current member of Ora Taiao: NZ Health and Climate.