National Ports Strategy, an alert for SA members

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The federal government is currently overseeing a massive expansion of freight movements through Australian ports. The 2010 National Ports Strategy (subtitled “Infrastructure for an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable future”) is a component of the infrastructure building that the ALP and the ACTU see as their central project on behalf of Australian capitalism during this term of office1.

Nationally, what is being planned is a doubling of freight movements by 2020 and then a further doubling by 2030.

There is a danger that the strategy will channel a massive number of diesel powered trucks through working class communities. While the strategy mentions rail freight options, its thrust is clearly oriented towards operating road traffic 24 hours a day, seven days per week.

It speaks of “streamlined environmental impact approvals” for “strategic freight corridors”, organising freight traffic so that it runs “into off-peak and weekend periods” and establishing “a small independent panel…of people with significant prior private sector leadership experience in port and freight logistics…to oversee implementation of the strategy.”

Commenting on the Strategy, the February 15, 2011 Australian reported a trucking industry representative seriously proposing the use of 51 metre long road trains to Australian ports.

All SA branches near ports need to study the National Ports Strategy and figure out what it means for their local area. For Fremantle branch it has led us directly into the Fremantle Road to Rail campaign, which is a significant action campaign for us.

While the greenhouse gas emission issues associated with this strategic push are important another issue is often passed over when dealing with it: diesel particulate air pollution.

Air pollution the great unspoken issue

For urban communities the most important problem associated with diesel truck traffic is air pollution, even though this is hardly registered in Australia.

Australian authorities have managed to keep diesel particulate pollution out of the public limelight, although the scientific evidence that particulates are deadly is well established. Particulates are responsible for twice as many deaths as road accidents in Australia.

The scientific literature shows particulates cause heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, asthma (especially among children), congestive lung disorder and many other conditions.

The international standard for particulate pollution was established in the USA with a study of the effects of air pollution in six different cities. It tracked 8111 adults for up to 16 years beginning in the mid-1970s. It found that higher levels of fine particles and sulphate were associated with a 26% increase in mortality from all causes.

Particulate pollution standards were introduced based on that research. But the trucking industry hit back, challenging the research. It was meticulously re-examined and found to be reliable. It has been backed up by myriad studies in other countries.

The destructive agent is microscopic particles that are 2.5 microns or smaller in size. Particulates larger than that are also obnoxious, but it is the PM2.5 and smaller that are really devastating.

To illustrate how tiny they are Science magazine compared them to the size of a virus, which is 1 micron. A human hair is at least 30 times larger than a PM2.5.

Diesel trucks are a major source of these ultrafine, micro particles. What is more, as the particles emerge from the engine they carry an electric charge, similar to static electricity. So, they electrically hold to themselves a range of carcinogens and then attract more pollutants as they travel through the air.

The particles get drawn deep into the lung, where the soluble fraction goes into the bloodstream, delivering to the cells a cargo of heavy metals and more.

The insoluble fraction is partly dealt with by the lung’s defence mechanisms and white blood cells. The remainder gets “walled off” in the lungs, thickening the membranes and causing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder.

Because white blood cells move to the lungs battling this constant invasion, other infections get missed. That is why particulate pollution leads to a generalised degeneration and conditions as varied as arteriosclerosis and strokes to endometriosis and other hormone disruption.

In 2008 the European Heart Journal reported an experiment in which 20 healthy volunteers were exposed to dilute diesel exhaust and follow up research was published in 2011 of 16 healthy volunteers who were similarly exposed. The experiments proved that diesel particulates cause red blood cells to clump, producing the congestive heart failures associated with diesel air pollution.

Australian governments (especially the WA government) do not have an interest in this evidence.

Conclusion

The National Ports Strategy will raise diesel particulate pollution as an issue confronting urban communities. SA branches can play an important role in educating people about the issue and organising coalitions to struggle for liveable communities.

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