Don’t mention the ‘h’ word
In the Latrobe Valley, where I come from, the electricity generating industry meant jobs for life under the old State Electricity Commission of Victoria.
When the sector was privatised, thousands of workers in the coal mines and power stations lost their jobs. Those who kept their jobs were forced into a new precarious employment environment.
A once economically and socially vibrant community was plunged into an era of job insecurity and economic downturn that has lasted for more than two decades. The private companies that now own the mines and power stations have championed profits over people and held the threat of unemployment like a sword over the heads of proud and skilled workers who continue to supply Victoria with the bulk of its power.
It is understandable that people are reluctant to talk about anything that might affect their livelihoods, even if nowadays the overwhelming amount of jobs in the Valley are not in the electricity generating industry.
Despite the toxicity of the air pollution from power stations, ‘health’ is the dirty word.
How do we, as a community, talk about the health impacts of burning coal when it has, for so long, put food on people’s tables and provided our state with electricity?
The Latrobe Valley community is exposed to millions of kilograms of toxic air pollution every year. As our report Toxic and Terminal explains, these pollutants cause and contribute to a range of health problems, from asthma attacks to heart attacks.
Despite this, the federal government will take some five years to review the standards for sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, both of which come, overwhelmingly, from coal-fired power stations and both of which have health impacts, even at small levels of exposure.
The Victorian EPA is presently reviewing the power station licences. EJA is advocating for emissions limits that bring us in line with other jurisdiction that treat the threat of air pollution far more seriously.
For nearly 100 years, the Latrobe Valley community has borne the health burden of power generation on behalf of the Victorian community. It took a mine fire – and subsequent inquiries – to finally uncover the extent of the poor state of health and wellbeing in the Valley.
Still, the elephant in the room is air pollution.
I feel like my community treats the health impacts of air pollution as a necessary by-product of power generation. Yet Morwell residents immediately noticed their health improved when Hazelwood closed.
Is it ironic, then, that there are more than twice as many jobs in the health sector in the Valley than there are in electricity and mining services combined?
Talking about the health impacts of air pollution from power stations in the Valley cannot be off limits any longer. It is a topic we cannot afford to treat as taboo. We owe it to ourselves to demand the cleanest air possible.