- Vales Point exemption from NOx limits expires in January 2022.
- New licence will require Vales Point to install low NOx burners to one of its two boilers by January 2021, Vales Point’s own report acknowledges that this measure alone is unlikely to bring Vales point NOx emissions down to the levels required under the Protection of Environment Operations Act 1997 for similar power stations.
Despite years of recommendations by thousands of community groups and experts, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has quietly given the state’s coal-fired power stations open licence to keep polluting at current levels.
In its new ‘power station environment protection licences’ published last week, the EPA made negligible changes to licence conditions for coal-fired power stations, despite having three years to implement its own modest recommendations in the 2018 EPA compliance review.
The EPA appears to have ignored all but one of these — Recommendation 5. This requires operators to install continuous emissions monitoring systems for nitrogen and sulfur dioxide. While this is important, monitoring does nothing to reduce toxic air pollution.
Toxic pollution emitted by NSW power stations causes almost 300 deaths1 each year, and an annual health bill of $2.5 billion.2
The EPA’s failure to implement its own recommendations comes as studies show air pollution contributes to COVID-19 deaths. A recent Harvard study finds long-term exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulate air pollution) is associated with higher death rates for people infected with COVID-19, while another international study finds long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide also increases the death risk from COVID-19.
Max Smith, Clean Air Campaigner at Environmental Justice Australia said:
“Thousands of concerned community members, environment groups and health experts have waited years for review recommendations to be implemented after campaigning for the state government to strengthen licence conditions to protect the health of local communities and the environment.
“Air pollution limits set by the EPA remain higher than existing pollution levels. They do nothing to control or lower pollution and protect community health. While the implementation of continuous emissions monitoring is welcome, there are no measures to reduce pollution.
“This is yet another example of a toothless regulator folding to the pressure of the powerful coal industry at the expense of people’s lives.
“The 2018 review was initiated in response to public anger about air pollution from coal-fired power stations in NSW, and made 13 modest recommendations for improving regulation. The EPA appears to have only implemented one of these 13 recommendations.
“The EPA has relinquished its obligation to act on a real threat to public health. The New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean now has an opportunity to step in, and deliver on the long-overdue clean air strategy he promised the people of New South Wales.
“People who live near power stations are already suffering unacceptable health risks and they have a right to breathe clean air.”
The compliance review was initiated in response to public anger and concern about air pollution from coal-fired power stations in NSW, after EJA’s work scrutinising the EPA licences for coal-fired power stations exposed the EPA’s failure to effectively regulate and control pollution. This included wild inconsistencies between the licences of different power stations.
The review made 13 modest recommendations for improving the regulation of coal-fired power stations in NSW. The EPA appears to have only implemented one of these 13 recommendations – recommendation 5 – requiring operators to install continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS) for nitrogen and sulfur dioxide. This is an important first step because without continuous emissions monitoring systems, power stations’ estimates of how much they are emitting has been shown to be wildly inaccurate. This was exemplified in the case of Stanwell power station in Queensland. Continuous emission monitoring at Stanwell revealed that the generator emitted twice as much nitrogen dioxide as previously estimated.
Health effects of power station air pollution
Coal-fired power stations in New South Wales are responsible for an annual health bill of more than $2.5 billion. A 2018 report authored by leading epidemiologist, Dr. Ben Ewald, found that 279 people die prematurely every year in New South Wales alone as a result of toxic air pollution from the state’s five coal-fired power stations. If these coal-fired power stations remain open until their expected closure dates, it is estimated they will cause an additional 3232 deaths in the state alone.
Earlier this year, Dr Richard Broome, NSW Health Director of Environmental Health, released self-proclaimed “conservative” figures on the health impacts of coal-fired power in NSW that substantiate the direct link between air pollution from coal-fired power stations and deaths in New South Wales. Broome and his colleagues estimated that installing pollution controls for nitrogen and sulfur dioxides in NSW coal-fired power stations would save almost $2.5 billion per year in mortality costs.3
Almost 5000 Australians die from exposure to air pollution each year.4 Thousands of others suffer serious health issues including asthma, heart disease and stroke.
Coal-fired power stations are one of the biggest sources of air pollution in Australia. They release more than 30 toxic pollutants and are the single largest source of dangerous sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and fine particle pollution (PM2.5) in Australia.5
Exposure to these toxic pollutants worsen existing conditions like asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. It can cause heart disease, stroke, asthma attack, lung cancer, low birthweight babies, and type 2 diabetes. And, it leads to a huge number of premature deaths.6
Some of our most vulnerable people are hardest hit by air pollution, low-income communities, the elderly, people with chronic diseases, children, pregnant women and unborn babies. There is no safe level – even small amounts can cause serious health issues if people are exposed for long periods.7
Australia’s coal-fired power stations are not fitted with some of the most basic pollution controls, required in most other countries, including China, the European Union and the United States, that can cut toxic pollutants by more than 85 percent.
In June, The Guardian revealed that Environment Minister Matt Kean had abandoned a clean air strategy for the state, four years in the making. The Minister has since walked back those suggestions but still has not released the report, three years overdue. It has been sitting on the Minister’s desk since May 2019.
Environmental Justice Australia is a leading public interest legal organisation. Our lawyers act on behalf of people and community organisations to safeguard health; protect forests, rivers and wildlife; and tackle climate change.