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EDITORIAL: Debate over new national PM10 standards

A new National Clean Air Agreement signedbystate and federal environment ministers laysoutthe first set of national standards for the problematic PM10 and PM2.5 particles associated with airborne coal dust.
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Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt described it asa bold plan that would generateenvironmental and health savingsof some $6.5 billion over 20 years.

But a variety of environmental and health lobby groups, including Doctors for the Environment and the Climate and Health Alliance, have criticised the agreement as failing to meet World Health Organisationguidelines for PM10 pollution.

As adopted, the national annual maximum concentration forPM10 exposurewill be 25 micrograms per cubic metre, compared with the 20 micrograms per cubic metre that had been recommended at the draft stage of the process.

Victoria and the ACT broke away from the rest of the states on Tuesday to adopt the 20 microgram limit, and NSW, with its heavy concentration of coal mines in the Hunter Region, has been blamed by critics for leading the charge to soften the standard.

For his part, NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman has rejected claims that the 25 microgram figure let the mining industry off the hook.

Mr Speakman saidthe coal industry did not want any annual standard for PM10 pollution, and that had gone to a standard that was “as good as any” inthe developed world.

Reading the Minerals Council of ’s October 2014 submission to the reform process, there is no doubt that it argues against the tighter standards, arguing they would come at a “significant cost” to industry without necessarily “delivering any material health benefit”.

The environmental lobby would saythat such sentiments are at odds with a growing volume of science that is increasingly certain about the damage that PM10s and PM2.5s can do to human health.

But the reality is that all industry has its side-effects, and that pushing for an industry to shut –as is happening withn coal –often onlyshifts the problem to another area.

In the end, the coal industry must recognise its obligation to workwithin ever-tighter standards. But these standards must in turn reflect the reality of the mining industry, which is that some dust is inevitable.

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