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WMWA submission for dust in Newman

August 26, 2021

Workplace dust has raised its ugly head again, this time among local communities seriously affected by the infamous red dust around Newman in Western Australia’s Pilbara.

In the wake of the Australian Workers’ Union’s campaign for action over silicosis and workplace dust, the Western Mineworkers Alliance – powered by the AWU and the Mining and Energy Union ¬– has made a submission to the Part V Licence Reviews for BHP’s Mount Whaleback and Eastern Ridge mines.

Newman, just 5km from Mount Whaleback, has the unfortunate title of Australia’s second-dustiest town, with dust from nearby mines affecting the lives of all its community members.

Many WMWA workers at the sites for this licence review live in Newman and surrounding Pilbara communities.

Brad Gandy, AWU WA Branch Secretary, says these workers are not anti-mining or anti-development, depend on mining for their living and contribute to sustaining the local economy.

“All industry has some impact on the local environment,” Mr Gandy says. “The problem is how this impact is managed, and it is clear that dust emissions are at levels that seriously affect the health, wellbeing and lifestyles of the Newman community.”

The WMWA submission is backed by a survey of current or former Newman residents, or FIFO workers who spend a significant amount of time in the community.

It found 80% of respondents said the dust in Newman had affected their lives. Of those:

● 82% said they had experienced adverse health affects.
● 74% said they had experienced damage to property from dust.
● 40% said they had experienced lifestyle impacts (not being able to do what they would otherwise like to do, due to dust).
● 19% said they had experienced community safety impacts.

Several long-term residents noted that the dust had become noticeably worse since Mount Whaleback became the hub of BHP’s iron ore operations in the Pilbara.

Community members identified a range of illnesses linked to dust including hayfever and allergies, bloody noses, asthma, sinus infections, bronchitis and difficulty breathing, and coughing up phlegm.

Some alarming responses included:

“The dust affects my throat and skin. Every morning when I wake up it feels like I have swallowed glass. I do not get this while staying in Perth or anywhere else, just dusty old Newman.”

“My family is often sick with lingering illnesses that take much longer to heal. My family also has ongoing rashes that aren’t explained. My family has asthma that is difficult to control.”

“My asthmatic children have more regular cases due to the dust levels. Personally, my nasal congestion is much worse and I have regular bloody noses due to the dust particles in the air.”

The dust also has also significantly affected community members’ lifestyles.

Survey respondents noted that day-to-day activities that would be taken for granted by most Australians – washing clothes and cars, turning on the air conditioning, driving, or even taking a walk – are a struggle for those living in Newman’s dust.

“The WMWA recognises that dust is an inevitable consequence of iron ore mining, but the dust
in Newman has become intolerable,” Mining and Energy Union WA district secretary Greg Busson says.

“BHP’s dust emissions under its Newman operations are already significantly exceeding limits set out in its licences. In 2018-19, BHP exceeded its licence limits on dust emissions more than 45 times.

“With a massive $US17 billion underlying profit earned in 2020-21, and $US15.2 billion paid to shareholders in dividends, BHP can afford to ensure that those living near these sites can have some semblance of quality of life.”

In 2020 BHP committed to investing $300 million over five years to improve air quality and reduce dust emissions, primarily from Port Hedland. The WMWA says the two sites for this licence review must be a part of this investment.

In its submission the WMWA also recommends:

● Environmental conditions applied on both sites by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation must be tightened and enforced.
● All environmental assessments, studies and reports conducted under BHP’s mine licences must be made available for the public to review.
● The department should be properly resourced to investigate and enforce compliance breaches.
● Conditions should include measures such as local vegetation that mitigate airborne dust.

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