Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has accused John Barilaro of “gaslighting” the people of the Hunter Valley after the New South Wales deputy premier claimed air quality data had been manipulated by environmental groups.

Barilaro had claimed on Tuesday that concerns about poor air quality caused by coalmining in the region were exaggerated by environmental groups who “manipulate the data to suit their argument”.

This was followed up with a separate attack yesterday by Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who claimed in an interview with 2GB that Turnbull himself had “lied” about air quality figures in a submission made to the NSW planning regulator opposing the expansion of the Mount Pleasant coalmine.

“He misrepresented the air quality numbers, he made a submission to the NSW planning regulator against the extension of a coalmine which will be critically important to local jobs, to the NSW energy system and our coal exports,” Fitzgibbon said.

Turnbull – who owns a property in the Hunter Valley – lashed Barilaro and One Nation MP Mark Latham during an appearance on ABC radio.

“They’re basically gaslighting the people of Muswellbrook,” Turnbull said. “They’re saying, and you heard it just on the radio here, that there isn’t an air quality problem. Right? They’re imagining it. They’re manipulating the figures.

“It’s extraordinary. It’s utter, patronising indifference to the people in the Upper Hunter. This is from people who actually want your vote.

“They’re basically saying you’re imagining all those dust clouds. You’re imagining the asthma. You’re imagining it. Doctors, children, parents. You’re imagining it. This shows complete contempt for the people of the Upper Hunter.”

Turnbull also said allowing the expansion of coalmines in the region at a time when global demand for coal is falling would only see more jobs lost as new mines “cannibalise” the market share of others.

“Demand for export coal is declining,” he said. “That’s clear. The statistics are very clear there and the reasons are obvious. It’s that people in other countries are burning less coal.

“We have a number of existing mines in the Hunter [that] are operating below capacity already. There is already enough capacity in the Hunter to meet export demand, you know, for a decade and more. Well into the future.

“If you have an unconstrained expansion of existing mines like the expansion at Mt Pleasant or the opening of new mines, all that you are going to do is cannibalise the demand from the existing mines and put workers out of work today.”

The New South Wales Minerals Council was contacted for comment but could not respond by deadline.

The former prime minister was dumped as chair of the new NSW Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy board on Tuesday just a week after being appointed by the state government.

Barilaro, who spent Thursday morning at Glencore’s Ravensworth coalmine to help launch the campaign for the Nationals candidate for Upper Hunter ahead of a crucial byelection, doubled down on his comments when contact by the Guardian.

“Air quality figures have been misinterpreted by anti-mining propagandists who are cherry-picking one-off measurements to suit their agenda,” Barilaro said.

“Air quality in the Upper Hunter has improved over the past six months. Daily particle levels in Muswellbrook and Singleton have been within the national benchmark for 99% of the time during spring 2020.

“As a consequence of the standardised hourly reporting, short-term peaks do occur but these statistical outliers are the exception rather than the rule.”

Asked whether he had information to disprove Turnbull’s comments about whether falling demand would see new coalmines displace jobs at existing mines, the deputy premier insisted coal exports would remain strong.

“The NSW government’s Strategic Statement on Coal Exploration and Mining makes clear that while a move to a lower carbon economy will see a reduction in demand for coal domestically, the demand for coal exports will remain strong for decades to come,” he said.

On air pollution, Dr Ben Ewald from Doctors For The Environment said the deputy premier did not seem to understand what “cherry picking” meant. A GP in Newcastle, Ewald said some parts of the Hunter Valley regularly exceeded dangerous course particle pollution of 10 micrometres or smaller, known as PM10.

In 2019, more than 1,000 alerts were sent to residents of the Upper Hunter Valley warning national air quality standards for PM10 had been exceeded.

“The people of the Upper Hunter have put up with poor air quality for many years. They host two power stations and a very large number of coalmines,” Ewald said. “And in many years, but not all years, they have the worst fine particle air pollution in the state.

“Though you cannot say whether any given patient with asthma was caused by pollution, we know that particulate pollution is a trigger or exasperates respiratory diseases like emphysema and asthma.”

Residents of Muswellbrook have previously spoken about swimming pools that have turned black and needing to dust off outside furniture at the end of each day.

Air pollution disproportionately affects low income communities and is estimated to kill around 3,000 people a year.

In June last year the Berejiklian government announced it would abandon a plan to introduce a statewide policy on air pollution and would instead fold it into other policies, frustrating communities in the Hunter Valley.

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