Health effects of coal mining

Last week I was invited to take part on a panel helping to launch a new report titled ‘Health and Social Harms of Coal Mining in Local Communities’. The report itself was fine. It consisted of four parts: a literature review of studies conducted internationally (as in, not in Australia) finding significant health effects from coal mining; literature review of studies pertinent to the Hunter Valley, NSW (the focus of the report), which were very few and did not suggest that there is current evidence for health effects associated with coal mining in the Hunter Valley; literature review of studies conducted internationally finding significant social effects from coal mining; and literature review of studies pertinent to the Hunter Valley finding that there are significant negative social effects associated with coal-mining. The latter, however, was heavily reliant on a series of studies conducted by a single research group.
My view of the report was as follows: there is evidence elsewhere in the world that there are significant health costs associated with coal mining. This may (or may not) be the case in the Hunter Valley. Given the significance of the possible costs, it is certainly worthwhile taking precautionary measures, and investigating further and establishing the facts. Only then we will be able to credibly influence policy to undertake meaningful change.
This view was shared by some of the panel members, who spoke about the need for ‘balance’ and ‘the best advocacy being evidence based’. Not so by the audience, who were self-selected, featuring many individuals with strong environmental views. Many of them didn’t seem to have come to hear what the report was about – they already knew, they were already convinced. And so, you might imagine how the proceedings unfolded: a barrage of industry / business / economics bashing, a lot of emotions about lost idyllic appearance of Hunter Valley, and calls for immediate and unconditional stop of any new coal mining. There was no place for argument about any benefits that society derives from coal mining and the associated industries, and indeed how these benefits could and should be weighed against the costs imposed on health and social wellbeing of the affected communities. The sentiment and the messages sent were clear: we don’t like coal mining and you should help us get rid of it immediately.
And this is really what bothers me. I think that there are serious issues at stake here involving significant tradeoffs between economic prosperity and environmental quality. These issues can only be resolved through a rational, evidence based investigation that informs society in its decision making, and helps formulate policy. Indiscriminate calls against either side of these tradeoffs are simply not credible, and can cause politicians to undermine the raised issues on the very grounds of that lack of credibility.

Author: Tiho Ancev

Tiho Ancev is a Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the School of Economics, University of Sydney. His main research areas are agricultural, environmental, natural resource and energy economics. Tiho’s main contributions have been in water economics and policy, economics of energy, economics of air pollution and climate change policies, and economics of precision agriculture and agricultural input use. He has published widely on these topics in top international peer reviewed journals. Tiho has led and contributed to national and international research projects in these research areas. He is currently the Managing Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.