Hunter communities challenge the NSW Government on mine noise changes

A NSW Government plan to increase allowable noise levels from coal mines has been challenged by a United Kingdom researcher whose work the government cites.

Hunter Communities Network has written to Premier Gladys Berejiklian and called on the government to provide Australian research to back any proposed changes after University of Salford sound researcher, Dr David Waddington, said his work could “not be used to justify environmental noise limits”.

Proposed changes to the NSW Industrial Noise Policy initiated in 2015, which are before Cabinet, cite a 2011 paper by Dr Waddington and others, Procedure for the Assessment of Low Frequency Noise Complaints, to back a change to the way low frequency noise from NSW industrial sites, including mines, are assessed.

In his paper Dr Waddington noted that while only a relatively small number of people are affected by low frequency noise from sources including dump trucks, bulldozers, excavators and coal washeries, “those who are tend to suffer severe distress”, even leading to feeling suicidal.

His proposed procedure for assessing low frequency noise was “intended to assist in the evaluation of existing problems” and was “not intended as a means of predicting when disturbance might occur, for example in a planning situation, and would not be reliable to use as such”, the 2011 paper said.

In an email in response to questions from Hunter Communities Network, Dr Waddington confirmed there had been no change to that view in the six years since the paper was published.

“Our low frequency noise research cannot be used to justify environmental noise limits and to attempt to do so demonstrates a lack of understanding of the science and the scope of the project,” he wrote. 

Network spokesperson Bev Smiles said while the Environment Protection Authority and the government continued to repeat that proposed changes were based on the best available science, Dr Waddington’s response to questions about how his research was being used contradicted the government.

“We now have evidence this isn’t the case,” Ms Smiles said.

“The current Industrial Noise Policy does little to protect families living in quiet rural areas from the health impacts and sleep disturbance caused by noise pollution from large coal mines,” said Ms Smiles and network colleague and Bulga resident Alan Leslie.

“The EPA has recommended that the policy be weakened without conducting any research in rural NSW.”

The network said the proposed new policy will allow mines to emit more low frequency noise by changing the way it is assessed and increase allowable daytime noise from 35 to 40 decibels.

The EPA said the increased daytime noise level would “better reflect the science when assessing daytime industrial noise”.

Ms Smiles and Mr Leslie said the current and proposed Industrial Noise Policy took no account of the difference between background noise levels in Hunter rural communities compared with background noise levels in inner city areas to propose a 40 decibel daytime noise level. The network has told the Premier that background noise levels in rural areas can be 20 decibels.

The network is also angered by new wording under the proposed noise guideline.

The current noise policy aims to “establish noise criteria that would protect the community from excessive intrusive noise and preserve amenity for specific land uses”.

The proposed noise guideline sets strictly functional objectives to “provide the criteria that are used to assess both change in noise level and long-term noise levels” and “promote the use of best-practice noise mitigation measures”.

In its letter to Premier Berejiklian the Hunter Communities Network said the problem with the use of Dr Waddington’s 2011 paper was raised with the EPA but without a response.

“In light of this clear conflict, the proposed NSW Industrial Noise Policy should be withdrawn and reassessed for its veracity on a justifiable scientific basis. We seek an undertaking from you that the proposed INP will not be adopted by the NSW Government,” the network wrote in a letter this month.

In November last year a spokesman for the then Environment Minister Mark Speakman confirmed that no research on industrial noise in rural NSW was used to review the existing Industrial Noise Policy.

“The draft industrial noise guideline proposed that the minimum daytime noise assessment level criteria be raised from 35 decibels to 40 decibels. This noise level remains below World Health Organisation recommendations for protecting sleep, and below levels that are expected to lead to unacceptable impacts on the community,” the spokesman said.

This story Lots of noise about mine proposal first appeared on Newcastle Herald.