By Dr Ben Ewald, Newcastle GP
‘The pollution from these power stations travels across the Hunter Valley, but it also travels as far as Sydney,’ says Newcastle GP and public health academic Dr Ben Ewald. ‘Even though those power stations are 80 or 100 or 160 kilometres away from Sydney, the pollution travels long distances and does affect people in all the populated areas of the state.’
Dr Ewald says some of the monitoring stations in the Hunter Valley have recorded annual averages for fine particles that are higher than the national standard. ‘Beresfield, near Newcastle, has quite often been over the eight micrograms per cubic metre limit. Muswellbrook, in the Upper Hunter, has been over eight micrograms per cubic metre ever since monitoring commenced.
‘The people up in Muswellbrook have a problem with SO2 pollution. It doesn’t go past the Australian standard, but the Australian standard is very out of date. It’s ten times higher than what the World Health Organisation thinks should be the standard. If you use the WHO standard, Muswellbrook has already had 20 or 30 exceedances of that daily standard this year.
‘Some of the health statistics show high rates of asthma (in Muswellbrook). I think the sulfur dioxide would be contributing towards that.
‘I think there’s a very strong argument that people in the town of Muswellbrook – which hosts large coal mines and coal-fired electricity production industries – those people should be protected, especially children in those communities – they’re not making money out of burning coal – they should be protected from these air pollution exposures that we know are bad for their health.
‘The way these coal-fired power stations and mines are managed is not optimised to look after public health. They are optimised for profitability. If these companies running these facilities had an incentive to run them more cleanly, they could do so.’
Dr Ewald says NSW’s load-based licencing system – which charges fees in proportion to the amount of pollution produced – could be an effective polluter-pays scheme, but the fees are set so low the companies find it cheaper to pay the fee than to clean up their act.
‘If those fees were brought up to a higher level, where it gave companies a real finance incentive to clean up production, I’m sure there’s a lot they could do.
‘I’ve heard one of the power station engineers from Muswellbrook say the first thing they do when the sulfur dioxide at the chimney exceeds the permitted amount is dilute it by blowing a whole lot of air up the chimney. Well of course that doesn’t reduce the amount of pollution, it just adds some air to the mix. The next thing they do is they have a special supply of low sulfur coal that they can throw in the boilers if they have to bring down the pollution level. That obviously begs the question, if you can burn low sulfur coal sometimes, why can’t they burn low sulfur coal all the time? It would be slightly more expensive for them, but I think the health of the community is worth it.’