Electricity generation remains Australia’s single greatest source of toxic PM2.5, accounting for 8.3 million kilograms of deadly fine particle pollution.
Power stations are also responsible for 49% (360 million kilograms) of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions and 54% (480 million kilograms) of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions.
“Coal mines and power stations have maintained high levels of toxic pollution,” said Environmental Justice Australia researcher Dr James Whelan, who spent the Easter weekend studying the latest National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) data.
“These toxic industries have not moved to control and reduce air pollution, despite relevant technologies being readily available – in fact, obligatory – in many other countries.
“This year’s NPI confirms the urgent need for stronger national air pollution laws and a strong national Environmental Protection Authority to control toxic air pollution.”
EJA’s analysis of this year’s NPI data has revealed:
- AGL’s Bayswater power station in the Hunter Valley reported emitting 294,000kg of PM5 – a 69% increase on the previous year. Annual PM2.5 concentrations in nearby Muswellbrook have exceeded the national standard every year since 2012.
- Fine particle emissions from Tarong power station, Queensland’s most polluting coal-fired power station, increased 16% during the last year, up 71% in the last five years.
- Emissions of mercury and compounds from the Latrobe Valley’s power stations increased by 37% to more than 2000kg in just one year, with Loy Yang B mercury emissions up 116% and Yallourn up 53%. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Exposure to high levels can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and developing foetus.
“If Eraring, Australia’s largest coal-fired power station, can limit its mercury emissions to just 1.3kg a year, why does the Victorian EPA allow Loy Yang B to double its mercury emissions to 831kg?” Dr Whelan said.
- Victoria’s Yallourn power station appears to be inaccurately reporting its toxic emissions. In the last two NPI reports, the operators of Yallourn have reported fine particle (PM5) emissions more than 50% lower than any year in the preceding decade.
“Yallourn’s claim that fine particle emissions have dropped by 50% is not credible, as the power station has not installed any new equipment to control pollution, despite such equipment being readily available,” Dr Whelan said.
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is self-reported by industry and not audited, but it is Australia’s most comprehensive source of air pollution data. The Federal Government publishes the NPI annually from information supplied by various industries, compiled by the states and territories.
In the last four years, seven large coal-fired power stations in Australia have been retired.
The retirement of these power stations has reduced toxic fine particle pollution by 966,000kg, SO2 emissions by 87 million kg and oxides of nitrogen by 31 million kilograms each year.
“Every time one of these old coal-fired power stations closes to be replaced by renewable energy, there’s an immediate health benefit to communities within 100 kilometres of the facility,” said Newcastle GP and public health academic Dr Ben Ewald.
Power generation is responsible for almost all the air pollution in the Latrobe Valley, accounting for 99% of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen and 97.4% of fine particle (PM2.5) emissions.
None of the Latrobe Valley power stations is fitted with controls that could significantly reduce emissions of toxic pollution. Coal-fired power stations in the US, Europe and Japan are compelled to fit bag filters to control particle emissions, flue gas desulfurisation to control sulfur dioxide emissions and selective catalytic reduction to control emissions of oxides of nitrogen.
“Power station operators have a responsibility to their neighbouring communities to use the best equipment possible to protect community health,” said Voices of the Valley spokesperson Wendy Farmer. “It’s time that was required in the Latrobe Valley.”
The Yallourn power station appears to be inaccurately reporting its toxic emissions. In the last two NPI reports, the operators of Yallourn have reported fine particle (PM2.5) emissions more than 50% lower than any year in the preceding decade.
This is not credible, as the power station has not installed any new equipment to control pollution, despite such equipment being readily available.
“It’s difficult to believe Yallourn has reduced its PM2.5 emissions by 50%,” Mrs Farmer said.
“In fact, people are experiencing much more coal dust around their homes and when we ask about the reason for this, there is always an excuse.”
Emissions of mercury and mercury compounds from the Valley’s power stations increased a whopping 37% to more than 2000kg in just one year, with Loy Yang B mercury emissions up 116% and Yallourn up 53%. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Exposure to high levels can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and developing foetus.
The NPI data is invaluable in the Latrobe Valley, where the community has very limited access to air pollution monitoring data. Community groups have called on the state government and EPA to provide immediate access to all monitoring data, as in NSW, but to date this remains unchanged.
“We have worked closely with the Victorian EPA to co-design an expanded air pollution monitoring network, but we are still waiting for the equipment to be installed and for our right to know what we’re breathing,” Ms Farmer said.
In its final year of operation, the Hazelwood power station emitted more fine particle pollution (PM2.5) than any year in the preceding decade. Its reported emissions of 884,000kg of PM2.5 was an increase of 27% on the previous year. The Loy Yang and Yallourn power stations both reported slightly reduced PM2.5 emissions, down 29% and 3% respectively, resulting in a 7% drop in the Valley’s total PM2.5 emissions.
New South Wales
Emissions of toxic fine particle pollution (PM2.5) from the state’s five largest power stations increased by 39% to a total of 755,000kg. This change was largely a result of a 69% increase reported by AGL’s Bayswater power station in the Hunter Valley, which emitted 294,000kg of PM2.5. Annual PM2.5 concentrations in nearby Muswellbrook have exceeded the national standard every year since 2012.
Proximity to power stations has been shown to affect birth weight and contribute to premature birth. The health impact of the Hunter’s power stations has been estimated at $600m per annum.
Several power stations appear to have inaccurately reported their toxic emissions.
“Last year, EJA expressed concern to the head of the NSW EPA when the operators of Vales Point and Mt Piper and Yallourn power stations reported fine particle (PM2.5) emissions that were dramatically lower than in previous years,” Dr Whelan said.
“None of these power stations had installed equipment to control pollution. The complaint was the impetus for a statewide investigation by the EPA.”
In this year’s NPI, the Vales Point and Mt Piper power stations estimate their PM2.5 emissions have increased by almost 500% in just one year. Having reported hugely decreased coarse particle pollution emissions last year, the two power stations reported increases of 179% and 256% this year. EJA will pursue this concerning matter with the NSW EPA.
Bayswater reported a 23% reduction in NOx emissions. Mt Piper reported a 22% increase.
The Liddell and Mt Piper power stations reported increases in SO2 emissions of 9% and 39% respectively.
Emissions of mercury from the state’s five power stations have dropped by 45% to 150kg, half the total reported three years ago. Eraring, Australia’s biggest power station, emitted just 1.3kg of mercury, compared to the 73.5kg from Bayswater, which generates less electricity.
“Power station operators can clearly reduce emissions when they are motivated to do so,” said Newcastle GP and public health academic Dr Ben Ewald.
“They would be more motivated if the state’s Load-Based Licencing scheme imposed much higher fees for toxic pollution. Health experts recommend that fees should be increased by a factor of 50.”
The Hunter’s ten most polluting coal mines emitted a total of 61 million kilograms of coarse particle pollution (PM10), up 2% on last year. In order from most polluting, these are Hunter Valley Operations, BHP’s Mt Arthur, Mount Thorley Warkworth, Ravensworth, Bengalla, Bulga, Liddell, Wambo, Mt Owen, and the Glendell & Ravensworth East mine. Of these ten, Mt Owen reported the biggest increase in PM10 emissions, up 17% to 3.3 million kilograms of PM10.
“The EPA’s Dust Stop program was created to control particle pollution from the Hunter Valley’s coal mines,” said John Krey of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association president and community representative on the Upper Hunter Air Monitoring Network Advisory Committee.
“By any objective measure, the program is failing and must be replaced with a much stronger compliance approach by the state’s environmental watchdog.”
The Namoi region’s four big coal mines (Maules Creek, Boggabri, Tarrawonga and Werris Creek) reported emitting a total of 13.7 million kilograms of coarse particle pollution (PM10), an increase of 10% on the previous year’s NPI. The controversial Maules Creek coal mine reported a 48% increase in PM10 emissions in just one year.
Newcastle exports about 160 million tonnes of coal each year, more than any other port in the world. The city’s three coal terminals have massive uncovered coal stockpiles, supplied by uncovered coal trains. The oldest of the three coal terminals is just hundreds of metres from residents. The other two are located at Kooragang Island, about 3km from Newcastle suburbs.
The three coal terminals are Newcastle’s dominant source of coarse particle pollution, accounting for 38% of the total. These emissions have doubled in the last decade and now account for just under 200,000 kilograms each year.
The three coal terminals operated by PWCS and NCIG emitted a total of 192,305kg of coarse particle pollution (PM10). They were the two biggest emitters of PM10 in Newcastle, accounting for 50% of the city’s total emissions.
Orica Chemicals emits the majority of Newcastle’s fine particle pollution (PM2.5), contributing to elevated levels in the city. These emissions increased by 90% in the last year, returning to 2013-14 levels (about 62,000kg).
Gladstone and Central Queensland
The Gladstone power station is the most urban in Australia, located right in the middle of the city. It is the city’s dominant source of sulfur dioxide (54% of the total) and oxides of nitrogen (66%) and the fifth highest source of fine particle pollution in this industrial city.
Gladstone power station reported emitting just under 50,000kg of PM2.5, a 2% drop from the previous year. Emissions of sulfur dioxide increased by 7% to 24.4 million kilograms.
“The Gladstone air shed is full and we need to work towards far less polluting forms of energy than burning coal and gas,” said Anna Hitchcock, coordinator of Gladstone Conservation Council.
Fine particle emissions from Tarong power station in Nanango, SEQ, increased 16% during the last year, up 71% in the last five years. Tarong reported emitting almost 2 million kilograms of PM2.5.
Emissions from Callide A and B power stations in Biloela increased by 7% to 323,000kg. Fine particle emissions from the Callide and Stanwell power stations dropped by 10% and 15% respectively.
Sulfur dioxide emissions from the state’s five highest emitting power stations increased across the board: Tarong by 33%, Kogan Creek by 26%, Milmerran by 13%, Gladstone by 7%, Stanwell by 5%.
The biggest new sources of air pollution in Gladstone are the three Liquified Natural Gas plants on Curtis Island. The LNG plants emitted a total 6.1 million kg of oxides of nitrogen, 13% of the city’s total NOx emissions.
The Central Queensland coal mines emitted more than 165 million kg of coarse particle pollution (PM10), with Australia’s six most polluting mines all located in Central Queensland.
“Fifteen of Australia’s 20 most polluting coal mines are located in Queensland; there is no independent air pollution monitoring in the entire coalfields and no community right to know that would allow people to know exactly what they are breathing,” Dr Whelan said.
Health effects: Particle pollution
Particles in the PM10 size range are commonly present in air and may be drawn into the body with every breath. In the lungs, particles can have a direct physical effect and/or be absorbed into the blood. Airborne particles may also be swallowed. Absorption of the toxic material into the blood may lead to allergic or hypersensitivity effects, bacterial and fungal infections, fibrosis, cancer, irritation of mucous membranes, increased respiratory symptoms, aggravation of asthma and premature death. The risks are highest for the elderly and children. There is no threshold below which health effects do not occur. (Source: NPI)
Health effects: Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
Exposure can induce headaches and anxiety. People with existing heart or lung conditions, such as asthma, are at increased risk. Repeated or prolonged exposure to moderate concentrations may cause inflammation of the respiratory tract, wheezing and lung damage. It has also proved to be harmful to the reproductive systems of animals in experiments and caused developmental changes in their newborn. (Source: NPI)
Health effects: Oxides of nitrogen (NOX)
Low levels of NOX exposure can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs and can lead to coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness and nausea. Exposure can also result in a build-up of fluid in the lungs for 1-2 days after exposure. Breathing high levels of oxides of nitrogen can cause rapid burning, spasms and swelling of tissues in the throat and upper respiratory tract, reduced oxygenation of tissues, a build-up of fluid in the lungs, and even death. Skin or eye contact with high concentrations of oxides of nitrogen gases or nitrogen dioxide liquid will likely lead to serious burns. (Source: NPI)
- Power stations – data from NPI, 2018 (spreadsheet)
- Coal mines – data from NPI, 2018 (spreadsheet)
- Air pollution hot spots – data from NPI, 2018 (spreadsheet)