New report confirms toxicity of coal-fired power stations

Loy Yang A and B power stations in Victoria are big emitters of mercury. Photo: Marcus Wong / Wikimedia Commons

Despite the drop in electricity generation from some coal-fired power stations, a five-year audit by the Environmental Justice Alliance (EJA) of the National Pollution Inventory (NPI) has found little overall change in the amount of toxic emissions.

Further, it said that Australia’s air pollution laws are failing to protect the health of communities and the environment.

Data from 11 coal-fired power stations closest to communities (there are 22) also showed the trend in huge spikes in toxic pollutants from some power stations had continued.

The NPI is the most comprehensive repository of toxic pollution information. It was established in 1998 after communities demanded to know which toxic substances were being emitted and who is responsible.

Polluters are obliged to report emissions from stationary (stack) and fugitive to air, land and water of the NPI’s 93 listed toxic substances. These reports are an estimate only; they are not based on continuous emissions monitoring.

The reports are collated by the Environmental Protection Agencies in each state and territory and published by the NPI.

The reports only give a glimpse of the problems, however, because they only 93 toxic substances are reported. By comparison, the United States’ Toxics Release Inventory covers 594 chemicals.

The NPI can only estimate pollution: it does not have the power to prevent it. It is currently under review, a process that began in 2018.

Health impacts

Toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations causes asthma, stroke, heart attack, reduced lung function and premature death in communities, some of which live hundreds of kilometres away.

The EJA said on April 6 that it wants “stricter health-based emissions limits for coal-fired power stations” that would “require operators to install pollution controls”.

It pointed to Lethal Power: How coal is killing people in Australia, published by Greenpeace in August 2020, which found that, annually, exposure to toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations causes 800 premature deaths, 850 low birth weight babies and 14,000 children between 5 and 19 years old suffer asthma attacks.

The EJA’s findings, covering July 2019 to June 2020, include some startling facts:

• Coal-fired power stations remain the dominant source of Australia’s fine particle pollution, including oxides of nitrogen (24%), sulphur dioxide (47%) and mercury (11%) — air pollutants most toxic to human health.

• Energy company AGL has the first, third and fourth most polluting power station for sulphur dioxide. It is the biggest emitter of toxic air pollution in Australia. 

• Delta Electricity in New South Wales reported a decrease in coarse and fine particle emissions at its Vales Point coal-fired power station on the Central Coast. NPI data from last year revealed alarming increases in both (121% and 181% respectively). 

But this decrease supports the EJA complaint to the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) last year about Delta Electricity breaching its licence conditions by failing to operate and/or maintain plant and equipment efficiently. The EPA is investigating.

• Liddell’s emissions of toxic pollutants in the Hunter region increased by 16%, correlating with an increase in electricity generation by 14%. Liddell’s emission of nitrous oxide and sulphur increased by 17% and 19%, respectively.

• Eraring (in the Hunter), Bayswater (in the Hunter) and Mt Piper (in the Central West NSW) are the second, third and fourth biggest power station emitters of sulphur dioxide in the country.

• AGL’s Bayswater plant emits 60 kilograms of mercury a year — more mercury than all the other NSW-based power stations combined. The four other power stations combined emit 45 kilograms.

• Three Victorian power stations in the Latrobe Valley are by far the biggest emitters of mercury, with Alinta’s Loy Yang B, the biggest emitter in the country despite being one of the smallest stations. Collectively, they emit more than 1100 kilograms of mercury annually. The next eight biggest power stations combined emit less than 300 kilograms. Fine particle pollution emissions from Loy Yang B increased by 38%, while its electricity output increased by 11%. 

• Yallourn and AGL’s Loy Yang A are the second and third biggest emitters of fine particle pollution. Neither have fabric bag filters to capture 99% of this pollution, whereas all the NSW power stations do.

• Loy Yang A is the biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide in the country.

• The Victorian power stations emit close to 300 kilograms of lead into the air each year.

• The Tarong power station, north west of Brisbane, is the biggest fine particle polluter, and does not have any filters fitted. Emissions of oxides of nitrogen and sulphur dioxide increased by 29% and 28%, respectively, despite a 5% decrease in electricity production.

• Gladstone and Stanwell, near Rockhampton, are two of the biggest power station emitters of nitrous oxide. Fine particle pollution from Gladstone increased by 131% compared with the previous year’s rise of 23%. This is despite a drop in Gladstone’s electricity production over 2019–20.

No safe level of exposure

Hunter Valley general practioner Bob Vickers said that, for some of these pollutants, "there is no safe level of exposure".

“For too long, these power companies and the governments that regulate them have turned a blind eye to the health impacts … I see it right in front of me every day, treating a high volume of patients with asthma, lung conditions and heart problems.”

Max Smith from EJA condemned governments for failing to make the operators protect community health. “State governments must urgently legislate stricter health-based emissions limits.”

Gippsland GP and psychotherapist Dr Suzanne Deed said EJA had lodged complaints with the Victorian and NSW EPAs over large spikes in dangerous fine particle pollution from Yallourn and Vales Point power stations.

But it had refused to investigate, she said, “claiming the NPI data was unreliable despite using NPI data as the basis for its recently renewed 5-year licences for Victoria’s coal-fired power stations.”

The NSW EPA claimed that it is investigating although, one year later, has yet to report its findings.

This lack of accountability on corporate polluters reflects their cosy relations with government, both federal and state. This has to change.

[Margaret Gleeson is a life-long unionist and environment activist.]

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