Coal mines’ proximity to urban centres in Australia poses health risks to local populations — study

Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, Australia. (Reference image by Adani Mining Australia, Wikimedia Commons.)

Researchers have found that major coal mines in Australia are located in proximity to large townships but lack surrounding vegetation, potentially exposing nearby communities to higher levels of CO2 in the air.

The scientists, hailing from Monash University, compiled the first snapshot of greenhouse gas pollution generated by 140 coal mines across the country. Their goal was to shed light on the environmental footprint of Australia’s coal mining industry and its potential impact on human health.

Their analysis uncovered significant clusters of coal mines in New South Wales and Queensland that are surrounded by densely populated urban areas, raising health concerns. Carbon offset appears to be better in New South Wales, which is surrounded by dense forests and nature reserves, than in more barren lands surrounding Queensland mine clusters.

The study also revealed Australia’s three largest emitting coal mines located in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland could be seeping the combined CO2 equivalent of around 30,000 cars annually.

Even with the gradual decline of coal reliance, the team believes the volume of greenhouse gases emitted by abandoned and operating mines would not necessarily decrease over time.

“Our research suggests that the location of coal mines and their proximity to nature and forest reserves plays a more significant role than once thought when it comes to the amount of carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants circulating in the air surrounding these mines,” Duvin de Mel, lead author of the study, said.

“It’s a concerning prospect to think that atmospheric CO2 concentrations from mining activities could actually increase if any forest clearing were to occur, especially around densely populated regions where there is a risk of unsafe air quality.”

Annual GHG emissions

The research analyzed data to estimate the annual greenhouse gas emissions of individual coal mines. The calculations also incorporated the volume of coal extraction annually for each mine, along with the quality of the coal extracted.

Coal quality is known to play a significant role in emissions output. The data uncovered that Queensland’s highest emissions offender extracted almost half of the volume of coal compared to Victoria’s biggest polluter, but emitted higher levels of CO2 overall. This suggests there’s scope to re-consider the mining of low-quality coal, which produces higher concentrations of harmful pollutants to generate electricity.

“We believe these findings could assist policymakers and mining companies in understanding the potential climate and health risks posed by coal mining activities and inform future mitigation strategies,” Josiah Butter, co-author of the study, said. “This study highlights the need for urbanization and vegetation surrounding coal mines to be monitored closely, along with supporting further exploratory research.”

The study also found underground coal mines emitted more than three times the amount of carbon dioxide than surface coal mines.

“Australia’s disused mines could become community assets rather than liabilities if properly planned. A nationwide priority should be to support the exploration of solutions to rehabilitate these mines,” Mohan Yellishetty, co-founder of the Critical Minerals Consortium at Monash University, said. “This macro-level research opens up new avenues for future exploration.”