Anger as public funds extend life of dirty Vales Point power station

Vales Point coal fired power station.

The ageing Vales Point coal-fired power station on the New South Wales Central Coast, due to close in 2029, was given a stay of execution in the federal budget.

In February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised Liberal party donor and part owner Trevor St Baker that an $11 million grant would be going his way to make upgrades. An undisclosed sum was allocated in the delayed 2020–2021 budget to upgrade the station’s turbines and high-pressure heater.

It is yet another example of the close relationship between governments and the fossil fuel lobby. The NSW government sold the power station, built in 1978, for $1 million in November 2015 to Sunrise Power International, partially owned by St Baker. It is now valued at $700 million.

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, St Baker is a serial donor to conservative parties, giving more than $100,000 to state and federal Liberal and National parties over 2018–19.

A November 2018 study by epidemiologist Dr Benjamin Ewald, commissioned by Environmental Justice Australia, found that air pollution produced by NSW coal-fired power stations cause 279 deaths every year.

It found that air pollution caused by the Vales Point power station contributed to 46 deaths, 40 low birth weight babies and 59 cases of Type 2 diabetes. It estimated that by 2029, deaths would total 547, low birth weight babies would total 475 and there would be 709 cases of type 2 diabetes.

Doctors for Environment Australia (DEA) warned in February about the human cost of extending the operation of Vales Point. It criticised the federal government’s grant promise, saying that prolonging the life of the coal-fired power station would exacerbate the impact of harmful pollution, including sulphur dioxide, reaching bigger parts of the state, especially in summer when north-easterly winds are common.

“It is hard to see … how the proposed gift of $11m to a private company to replace an old turbine is of any value to Australia,” DEA said. “It’s essential we prioritise public health above the private profits of vested interests.”

Environment organisations agree. Nature Conservation Council spokesperson Chris Gambian said on October 7 that the budget’s huge deficit “pales in comparison to the climate debt” being left for future generations.

“The federal government has no business funding a privately-owned coal-fired power station,” he said, adding it should have a plan for the “orderly closure of coal-fired power stations and their replacement with clean energy”.

The NCC has also criticised the use of taxpayer funds to allow a private company to pollute for longer.

“If this taxpayer lifeline to Vales Point extends its operating life by just two months, any emissions reductions from the 1% efficiency upgrade will be completely wiped out,” Dr Bradley Smith said.

Kate Smolski, from Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said the already dangerous levels of air pollution at Vales Point highlight the need to “swiftly replace” coal-burning power stations with wind and solar and to protect communities with better pollution controls.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has estimated that Vales Point emits about 6.9 million tonnes of climate-heating pollution every year. Built around the same time as the Liddell Power Station, near Muswellbrook in NSW, which is being retired in 2022, it needs to be replaced with clean energy.

“This is not a wise investment for the federal government, as coal-fired power will soon be uninsurable and the public will need to indemnify stations against inevitable climate risk,” ACF chief executive officer Kelly O’Shanassy said.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) granted Vales Point a 10-year exemption under the Clean Air Act, allowing it to exceed pollution limits for nitrogen oxide small particles and sulphur dioxide. The 10-year exemption will expire at the end of 2020.

Currently, Vales Point has a licence to emit these chemicals in excess of approved limits.

Even if it complies, the NSW EPA emission limits are well above best practice globally.

The local community is preparing a campaign to oppose the extension of the exemption permit beyond its current expiry date. It will call on all levels of government to commit to a plan for a just transition to renewables, which includes replacing deadly outdated coal-fired power stations with renewable energy generation.

[Margaret Gleeson is a retired unionist, lifelong environment campaigner and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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