NSW will adopt air pollution standards that do not meet the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation, following a meeting of Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers.
The meeting on Tuesday, to decide on a National Clean Air Agreement, saw state ministers divided on appropriate levels of coarse-particle (PM10) air pollution, resulting in the breakaway of Victoria and the ACT to adopt stricter standards than other states.
Ministers also unanimously voted on standards for dangerous fine-particle (PM2.5) emissions, however standards for these will be some of the toughest in the world.
"Disappointing": Doctors have expressed concern at air pollution standards in a new National Clean Air Agreement.
"Disappointing": Doctors have expressed concern at air pollution standards in a new National Clean Air Agreement. Photo: Doctors for the Environment
The agreement decided on an annual average PM10 standard of 25 micrograms per cubic meter, while Victoria and the ACT opted to implement a stricter state-specific threshold of 20 micrograms per cubic metre.
PM10 particles include coal dust and car exhaust and are associated with lung cancer in non-smokers and restricted lung growth in children.
The threshold of 25 micrograms was understood to be that advocated by NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman and was above the annual average standards of 12, 16 or 20, recommended last year in the National Environmental Protection Measure impact statement.
"I'm frightened:" Ruth Townley, who is concerned about the air pollution impacts for herself and her son Joey, from the ...
"I'm frightened:" Ruth Townley, who is concerned about the air pollution impacts for herself and her son Joey, from the WestConnex development. Photo: Peter Rae
"I don't think NSW have been particularly ambitious with this. I find it disappointing," said Dr Elizabeth Hanna, from the Australian National University and president of the Climate and Health Alliance.
"I think we can quite fairly criticise it for being more relaxed than the World Health Organisation guidelines, particularly when we consider the known relationship between air pollution and respiratory and cardiac health burdens."
However Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt described Australia's first National Clean Air Agreement as a "bold step forward," which would mean "our's is cleaner, our health is better and our environment is improved."
"It's expected that the savings in costs to our health and our environment over the next 20 years will be about $6.5 billion," he said.
Environmental Justice Australia CEO and lawyer Brendan Sydes said the agreement is "simply not good enough."
"It does nothing to protect our health. It simply bows to the pressure created by the mining industry who put profits ahead of the health of communities struggling with air pollution."
But NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman rejected claims the threshold let the mining industry off the hook.
"The Minerals Council didn't want any annual standard for PM10. We've gone to a standard that, when coupled with the daily standard, is as good as any major developed country in the world."
The NSW-led standards for the especially dangerous PM2.5 emissions appear to be the toughest in the world. The PM10 standards are tougher than most other developed economies, including the EU, Canada and most of the USA."
He added that the WHO recommendation of 20 micrograms was based on a ratio estimate and that the WHO advises a different value for the ratio may be employed when setting local standards.
"This has been a great achievement today and it really gives Australia some of the cleanest air in the world."
While the national agreement set the annual average threshold for PM10 at 25 micrograms per cubic metre, jurisdictions on the ministerial council have the right to set their own threshold, particularly where they are more stringent than the nationally agreed standard.
It was for this reason that the ACT and Victoria took the opportunity to adopt a threshold of 20 micrograms, in line with World Health Organisation recommendations.
"We recognise not all jurisdictions are comfortable with that level and we accept that, but we believe we are in a position to pursue a more rigid standard," said ACT Environment Minister Simon Corbell.
Victorian Environment Minister Lisa Neville said "we thought that as a nation we could work towards cleaner air with a tougher standard for PM10 than one being proposed."
She added that Victoria had agreed to work with NSW to review the PM10 annual mean standard in 2018.
Greens NSW MP and Environment spokesperson Dr Mehreen Faruqi criticised Tuesday's agreement for being too lax, describing the result as a "Christmas gift for big coal companies."
"Once again in NSW, the government has sided with the big coal companies to put their profits ahead of human health" Dr Faruqi said.
The government, states and territories also agreed on a voluntary phase-out of micro-beads, or micro-plastics as part of the agreement.
Damaging micro-plastics are contained in personal care products such as exfoliants and shower gels and are washed down the sink into the oceans.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/states-divided-as-national-clean-air-agreement-sets-thresholds-for-air-pollution-20151215-glo0gv.html#ixzz47Bw9jGGc
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