Coal-fired power stations and health: sharing experiences

Victoria’s Hazelwood power station – Australia’s dirtiest – is preparing to close down, but three more coal-fired power stations still operate in the Latrobe Valley.

Victoria’s Hazelwood power station – Australia’s dirtiest – is preparing to close down, but three more coal-fired power stations still operate in the Latrobe Valley.

On Thursday 23 March EJA ran a community workshop in Morwell to share information, ideas and experiences on the health downsides of living close to coal-fired power stations.

I had the pleasure of facilitating the workshop along with my EJA colleagues Nicola Rivers and James Whelan. We were joined by oncology pharmacist and clean air researcher Clare Walters and Lou Irving, one of Australia’s leading respiratory physicians.

Associate Professor Irving, from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, told the workshop that in other parts of the world long-term studies have revealed the toxic chemicals from power stations cause serious health problems for local communities.  These include lung cancer, heart attacks, asthma and stroke.

We cannot rely on Australia’s national standards for air pollution providing protection because they are not set at levels that protect human health.  

What we can be sure about is that around 90 per cent of the Latrobe Valley’s air pollution, including dangerous fine particle pollution, comes from the Valley’s coal-fired power stations. And the Latrobe Valley has one of the highest rates of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease in Victoria.

Workshop participants shared stories about respiratory problems and other health issues they have experienced while living in the shadow of the power stations.

I grew up in the Valley and my family knows first-hand about air quality issues and health.

When she was a child, one of my sisters had chronic asthma and doctors would tell my parents, ‘take your daughter out of the Valley to get better.’

So many families in the Latrobe Valley have stories like mine.

People at the workshop expressed concern that they do not have easy access to air quality monitoring data. As part of the reform of Victoria’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), citizens have been promised better access to data from air monitoring stations via the EPA website – just like people in New South Wales have – but there is still no timeframe for these reforms to come into effect.

People were also concerned that in Victoria the community has no right to take polluters to court.  In many parts of Australia, if the government doesn’t take action on a pollution complaint, members of the community can take civil or criminal action against the polluter.  

In Victoria, only the EPA – and in very limited instances, local councils – can take action on pollution events.

The Victorian government is reviewing the state’s environment protection laws and EJA is working hard to persuade the government that community enforcement rights must be part of these important reforms.

Ultimately though, what the people of the Latrobe Valley need is to not be exposed to so much toxic pollution from the power stations.

There is much more the EPA can and should be doing to reduce the emissions from power stations – for the health of the whole community.

It was great to hear people’s stories and spread some awareness about what people can and cannot do about air pollution issues.

EJA will hold more community workshops at the Upper Hunter Conservatorium of Music in Muswellbrook on Wednesday 29 March and the Community Hall in Wyee on Wednesday 19 April to hear about people’s concerns and experiences with air pollution in those communities.

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