Legal and policy experts at Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) warn that government must prioritise public safety over corporate welfare, as yesterday the EPA announced fining Delta Electricity a mere $30,000 for waste offences at Vales Point coal-burning power station.
EJA lawyers say Delta has been inadequately penalised for the offences, which have resulted in land pollution.
This is a negligible sum for the privately-owned power station, valued at $750 million, especially given this week’s news that taxpayers are funding a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the ageing power station, without specifying air pollution controls.
In 2018, a large stockpile of asbestos and other waste was documented across a 30,000 square metre area at the station’s coal ash dump, situated between Mannering Lake and Lake Macquarie water catchments. The breach has received only a paltry fine, and a final clean-up notice has not yet been issued for the remainder of the dumped material on the site.
Due to close in nine years, Vales Point coal-burning power station is reportedly earmarked for several million dollars in government grants for new turbines and high-pressure heaters. But lawyers warn that Vales Point already emits pollutant concentrations that dramatically exceed limits set by comparable countries due to inadequate pollution controls. Vales Point also enjoys an exemption from the stricter oxides of nitrogen standards applicable to other NSW coal burners. These factors must be addressed to protect the public from exposure.
Jocelyn McGarity, lawyer at EJA, said:
“For decades, Centra Coast communities living next to Vales Point coal-burning power station have raised concerns about the health impacts of coal pollution, including poorly managed coal ash dumps.
“These ash dumps, even before being filled with asbestos as in the case of Vales Point, are loaded with dangerous heavy metals that can leach into local waterways like Lake Macquarie and pose a significant threat to the local community.
“This paltry fine for serious environmental breaches is unlikely to materially affect Delta’s bottom line, and so will not be a disincentive to pollute.
“It’s disappointing to note that although the EPA recently amended its Prosecution Guidelines to include the consideration of human health and environmental justice principles, it has obviously given these factors little weight in deciding not to prosecute Delta. Had the EPA taken legal action, the maximum penalty available for each breach was two million dollars.
“Delta clearly failed to have adequate systems and procedures in place to safeguard the community and environment from asbestos waste. Because of that, there’s now a compounding of environmental issues at the ash dam.
“The fact that the Morrison Government is seriously considering handing over millions of dollars of public money to prop up this ageing, failing power station when it continues to harm community health and breach environmental laws is frankly appalling.
“Instead of rewarding these industries with public funds to operate for longer, governments must urgently move to address the serious flaws in our regulatory system. Our EPAs should be empowered with stronger national pollution standards which would make sure these power stations have proper pollution controls on their smoke stacks and ash dams to protect community health.”
Australia’s coal-burning power stations rank among Australia’s biggest sources of pollution, with ambient air pollution exceeding the World Health Organization’s recommended thresholds. Australia’s pollution standards lag significantly behind most other countries, including China, the United States and the European Union.
Such poor regulatory control of toxic pollution from coal-burning power stations including Vales Point has deadly consequence. Collectively, these stations cause approximately 800 premature deaths, 14,500 asthma attacks and 850 cases of babies born with low birth weight every year, according to a peer-reviewed report published last month.
The report finds 2.1 million Australians are exposed to toxic pollutants from coal-burning power stations. Last month a team of volunteer actuaries modelled the economic cost of the health impacts of air pollution from Australia’s coal-fired power, finding that the health bill last year alone amounted to $2.4 billion on conservative estimates.
- Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacy
- Toxic and terminal: How the regulation of coal-burning power stations fails Australian communities
- Lethal Power: how coal is killing people in Australia
- The health burden of coal-burning power in NSW
- National Pollutant Inventory (NPI)
- Strengthening national air pollution standards to protect public health
- Expert Position Statement on health-based standards for Australian regulated thresholds of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone in ambient air
- Australian coal-power allowable pollution would be illegal in US, Europe and China – report