13 June 2017

Will Adani’s coal mine kill 500,000 people?

Credit: J.B. Russell

by Graeme Taylor

If all goes as Adani plans, coal from its proposed mine in Queensland will produce enough air pollution to kill hundreds of thousands of Indians. Given that this risk is not only known but avoidable, would it be fair to say that the businessmen and politicians developing this mine will be guilty of premeditated mass murder? Here are the facts and the competing arguments: you make the call.

Scientists found that air pollution from coal burnt to generate electricity in India causes the premature deaths of 80,000 to 115,000 people per year from chronic lung conditions, respiratory infections, heart diseases, strokes, bronchitis and trachea and lung cancers. 10,000 of these victims are children under the age of 5. In addition every year tens of millions of cases of asthma and other respiratory ailments are linked to coal pollution including 21 million asthma attacks.

During the 12 month period studied (2011-2012) 503 million tons of thermal coal was burned. Since Adani plans on mining almost five times as much coal in Queensland this massive project could cause half a million premature deaths and 100 million asthma attacks.

These horrifying statistics shouldn’t come as a surprise. Breathing the filthy smog in cities like New Delhi or Beijing is equivalent to smoking one to two packs of cigarettes a day—one in eight people in the world now dies from air pollution.

The owners of Adani are perfectly aware that coal pollution seriously damages both human health and the environment. However, they maintain that the benefits will outweigh the costs as coal generated electricity is needed to help eliminate poverty in India and end hunger. But while this was a reasonable argument in the 20th century, it’s not valid in the 21st, as it is now cheaper to source electricity from clean solar plants than from dirty coal-fired generators.

Adani also reasons that high-quality coal from the new mine will replace low-quality coal from India and Indonesia, thereby reducing pollution from many existing thermal generating plants. Since other countries will sell India dirtier coal if Queensland coal isn’t available, building the mine is an ethical decision that will help the environment and save lives.

This argument is called the drug dealer’s defence: if I don’t sell your kids crystal meth another dealer will—and the courts should let me deal drugs because my high-quality products won’t kill as many children as the junk sold by my competitors!

Although the quality of Adani’s coal is debatable, the bottom line is that even if the pollution from Queensland coal causes fewer deaths than the coal shipped from other countries, it will still kill hundreds of thousands of people. Is it possible to justify the production and sale of an additional source of pollution when safe alternatives are available? Or is developing this mine just as criminal as building a lab to manufacture deadly drugs?

In Australia the charge of murder by recklessness applies if a person caused a death through acting in an unjustifiable manner while knowing that such an action was likely to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm. On the other hand, a charge of manslaughter by criminal negligence applies if the accused caused unintentional death by choosing to act in a reckless manner even though he was aware that he was creating a high risk of death or serious bodily injury.

In Nydam v R the difference between the two offences was described as “An instance of the former might be to kill a person in a street by intentionally dropping a large block of stone from a high building into the crowded street below: an instance of the latter might be to kill a person in a street by carelessly letting fall a large block of stone from a high building into a crowded street below."

I will leave it up to you (and lawyers) to decide whether either of these criminal charges could or should apply to the Adani mine.
Dr Graeme Taylor is a social scientist, lecturer and writer. He is the author of Evolution’s Edge: The Coming Collapse and Transformation of Our World, which won the 2009 IPPY Gold Medal for the book “Most likely to save the planet”.