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Coal Dust Management

17th April 2023

Coal dust management is a high priority issue for mining and transport operations as they seek to reduce the potential impacts on local communities.
Mining and transport companies have strict processes in place to minimise and monitor the coal dust produced through their work.
Although the coal dust particles can be a nuisance, causing marks on washing for example, the dust is generally not considered medically harmful.
However, coal-transport operations take significant steps to reduce coal dust dispersion, with end-to-end processes to manage the emissions.
As a sustainable and responsible operator, implementing effective coal dust management is a key priority for all our workers at Bowen Rail Company. Find out how we manage coal dust.

What is coal dust?

Coal dust is the powder that is produced during coal mining and its transport and handling. Like any other form of dust, it is created by the rock being crushed or rubbing against another rock.
In mining, coal dust is emitted during the extraction process at the mine site. The coal is then crushed for transport, when there is the risk of additional coal dust production.
To reduce this risk, the coal is washed to clear most of the debris. The coal is then watered to raise its moisture content.
The remaining coal dust - which is transported by rail to the port - is generally about 50 microns to 200 microns wide. A grain of sand is about 11 microns in width. This is important because at this size, it is less likely to be breathed into the tiny air pockets of the lungs and impact respiration.

Is coal dust bad for you?

There has been significant media attention about the risk of pneumoconiosis, which is a very serious disease that mostly affects coal miners. This has raised concerns that the coal rock itself presents a significant medical risk to humans.
According to Safe Work, there is an increased risk of developing pneumoconiosis if people smoke and are exposed to a high level of coal dust over a long period of time. It is considered preventable.
So, is coal dust bad for you? For those working in mining or coal-handling operations, there are strict regulations in place to reduce the exposure of workers to coal dust.
In October 2022, Queensland introduced new workplace health and safety laws to halve the concentration of respirable coal dust within a worker’s breathing zone to an eight hour time weighted average of 1.5 mg per cubic metre.
For the general public and communities around rail lines, however, the amount of exposure to coal dust and its makeup means that the main impacts are around visual amenity (how it looks), as well as health and the air quality impact.

While coal dust is generally large in size - bigger than a grain of sand - it is microscopic particles that can impact people’s health at high levels. Their tiny size means they can be inhaled into the lungs and cause respiratory symptoms.
PM2.5 are particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres (0.0025mm) or less and PM10 are 10 micrometres (0.01mm) or smaller. These particles are generally created from combustion of fuel, smoke from bushfires and heaters and industrial processes.
Regarding the question, does coal dust cause cancer, pure coal dust is not classified as a carcinogen. A 2022 research review suggested coal dust itself does not increase lung cancer risk.
However, as responsible operators, coal dust management remains a top priority for operators.

Dust control in Queensland

Coal dust management is an important issue in Queensland, which is home to significant coal mining and handling operations that provide jobs and opportunities in regional areas.
The communities most affected by coal dust are located within mining regions, including the Bowen Basin in Central Queensland, Surat Basin in south-central Queensland, the Galilee Basin in central-west Queensland and the Clarence–Moreton Basin in southeast Queensland.
Together with industry, governments have implemented several measures to manage coal dust and reduce the risks to human health and local environments.
The Dust Management Framework for Queensland coal mines outlines the regulatory requirements and sets out best practice guidelines.
It requires mines, transport operators and ports to implement effective dust management plans, including dust suppression techniques, dust monitoring, and regular reporting.
The Queensland Coal Mining Safety and Health Advisory Committee was also established to provide advice on coal dust management and other health and safety issues in the industry.

Coal dust minimisation practices

In central Queensland, mining and transport companies follow best practice protocols to reduce the amount of coal dust in the air.
These end-to-end processes involve coal dust minimisation from the time the coal is extracted, to train loading, and offloading at the port.
This includes:

  • Loading coal wagons precisely to prevent spillage
  • Streamlining the shape of the coal when it is loaded in the rail wagon
  • Coating each wagon-load of coal with a biodegradable polymer veneer to stop dust
  • Driving the trains at less than 80km/hr
  • Unloading the coal at the port in an enclosed loading station, complete with exhaust fans.

Coal dust monitoring

Mining and transport companies conduct coal dust monitoring to assess air quality and provide ongoing assurance.
Most companies use fixed beta attenuation monitors (BAM) at locations in the mine or along the rail route to measure the airborne levels of PM10 and PM2.5 particulate concentrations.
Further, dust deposition is conducted monthly to measure coal dust particles, insoluble and soluble solids and ash.
Data is also provided to authorities in line with government regulations and environmental approvals.
If concerns are raised about a specific location, we can send mobile mounted BAM units for local monitoring.

What is air quality management?

Air quality management for coal dust is the process of monitoring, reporting and controlling the particulate in the air.
In the event of a high dust trigger, there is a cascade of immediate reporting and corrective action that occurs at Bowen Rail Company.
First we find out the problem and identify the root cause. Then action is taken to minimise the dust. Once this has been done, we evaluate the entire process.
Ongoing monitoring ensures clean air for all communities. You can see the real-time air quality at the Queensland Government’s Live Air Data site.

Bowen Rail Company takes the issue of coal dust and air quality very seriously, as part of our commitment to our communities. To find out more, visit our sustainability pages.

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