Analysis of just released data from the National Pollutant Inventory reveals coal-fired power stations are Australia’s biggest polluters once again with a number of power stations reporting significant increases in some of the most toxic pollutants.
Coal-fired power stations remain the dominant source of Australia’s fine particle pollution PM2.5 (25% of the national ‘all sources’ total), oxides of nitrogen NOx (25%), and sulfur dioxide SO2 (49%) – some of the air pollutants most toxic to human health.
More than half of the country’s coal-fired power stations reported significant increases in at least one of these toxic pollutants, with two of the oldest power stations – Yallourn and Vales Point – reporting shockingly high increases in the most dangerous air pollutant – fine particle pollution (PM2.5).
Nicola Rivers, Director of Advocacy and Research at Environmental Justice Australia said:
“Yet again, coal-fired power stations have come out as the country’s worst polluters and a number have reported significant increases in some of the most toxic pollutants. . Coal-fired power stations are not just contributing to global warming – they are responsible for an annual health bill of $2.6 billion.
“Air pollution kills approximately 4800 Australians every year. Coal-fired power stations in Australia are not required to fit best practice pollution controls mandated in most other countries that reduce toxic pollutants by more than 85 percent.
“Coal-fired power stations are responsible for an annual health bill of $2.6 billion.1 Exposure to toxic pollutants they emit causes premature death, heart attacks, stroke, asthma attacks, low birth weight babies, lung cancer and type 2 diabetes.
“The NPI was established by Australia’s nine state, territory and federal governments to motivate polluters toward cleaner production and improved community health. It’s clear it has fallen short of that objective and that strong policy, laws and regulations are required to force coal-fired power stations to clean up their act.
“State and federal Environment Ministers should take this opportunity to clean up our air by introducing stronger national air pollution standards and making coal-fired power stations install best practice technology to control fine particle pollution, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Installing proper pollution controls would reduce exposure to toxic pollutants for millions of Australians until these power stations can be replaced with clean, renewable energy.
“Governments must be vigilant about cutting pollution that harms human health from the country’s biggest sources, so we are more resilient to health crises like the bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic.”
EJA’s analysis of this year’s NPI data for the period July 2018 – June 2019:
- Coal-fired power stations remain the dominant source of Australia’s fine particle pollution PM2.5 (25% of the national ‘all sources’ total), oxides of nitrogen NOx (25%), and sulfur dioxide SOx (49%) — the air pollutants most toxic to human health.
- Fine particle pollution (PM2.5) from the oldest coal-fired power stations in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria – Vales Point, Yallourn and Gladstone power stations increased by 181%, 82% and 23% respectively.
- Delta Electricity reported alarming increases in emissions from their Vales Point coal-fired power station on the Central Coast of New South Wales, including a 121% increase in coarse particle emissions (PM10) and a 181% increase in deadly fine particle emissions (PM2.5). PM2.5 from Vales Point has increased 3000% since 2012-13. While the power station generated 63% more energy in 2018-19 than in 2012-13, this does not explain a 3000% increase in pollution.
- Fine particle pollution (PM2.5) emissions from EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn power station in Victoria increased by an incredible 82%. This is even though Yallourn had one of its generating units offline for maintenance during the year.
- The 3 Victorian power stations are by far the biggest power station emitters of mercury in the nation. Loy Yang B is the biggest emitter in the country despite being one of the smallest power stations. Combined the Victorian power stations emit more than 1,000kgs of Mercury. The next 8 biggest power stations in Australia combined emit less than 500kgs.
Max Smith, Clean Air Campaigner for Environmental Justice Australia said:
“Vales Point is a massive polluter and its pollution just keeps increasing. Dangerous PM2.5 pollution has increased a whopping 3000% since 2012-13 at this New South Wales power station. Every extra kilogram of fine particle pollution that Vales Point power station emits contributes to respiratory illness and ultimately premature death. Yet the Morrison Government recently entertained the idea of handing over taxpayer funds to keep it open for longer, while the New South Wales government continues to let them pollute at levels dangerous to the community.
“It beggars belief that Yallourn and Tarong power stations are not even fitted with some of the most basic pollution controls. Bag filters are standard practice in power stations around the world can capture up to 99 percent of fine particle pollution and have huge benefits to health for communities exposed to power station pollution.
“Thousands of people in the community have made submissions to pollution licence reviews for coal-fired power stations in New South Wales and Victoria calling for stronger pollution controls to protect their health. The NPI data is a wake–up call for state governments and regulators. It’s time they made coal-fired power stations clean up their act.”
Background briefing and break down by state:
New South Wales
- Delta Electricity reported alarming increases in emissions from their Vales Point coal-fired power station on the Central Coast of New South Wales, including a 121% increase in coarse particle emissions (PM10) and a 181% increase in deadly fine particle emissions (PM2.5). PM2.5 from Vales Point has increased 3000% since 2012-13. While the power station generated 63% more energy in 2018-19 than in 2012-13, this does not explain a 3000% increase in pollution. This is a matter the NSW EPA should investigate.
- Eraring, Bayswater and Mt Piper are the second, third and fourth biggest power station emitters of SO2 in the country.
- The NPI highlights significantly increased emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) from NSW power stations. The Liddell, Eraring and Mt Piper power stations increased SO2 emissions by 10%, 15% and 20% respectively.
- Bayswater is in the top 3 polluters for SO2 and NOx. The NSW government approved the expansion of Bayswater power station without requiring pollution controls to be installed (as recommended by pollution control experts).
- There are no permanent, public air quality monitoring stations near the Eraring or Mt Piper power stations so local residents don’t know what they’re breathing.
- Fine particle pollution (PM2.5) emissions from EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn power station in Victoria increased by 82%. This is even though Yallourn had one of its generating units offline for maintenance during the year.
- Yallourn’s pollution control equipment is currently the focus of legal action initiated by Environmental Justice Australia in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
- Yallourn and Loy Yang A are the second and third biggest emitters of PM2.5 in the nation, with 1,372,757kgs and 531,054kgs, respectively. Neither have fabric bag filters to capture 99% of this pollution. All the NSW power stations have fabric bag filters installed and so emit less than half of Loy Yang and less than a quarter of Yallourn. Even though Loy Yang B is very small in terms of energy output, it still emits almost twice as much PM2.5 as Eraring, which is the biggest power station in Australia.
- Loy Yang A is the biggest power station emitter of SO2 in the country, with 46,065,106kgs.
- The 3 Victorian power stations are by far the biggest emitters of mercury in the nation. Loy Yang B is the biggest emitter in the country despite being one of the smallest power stations! Combined they emit more than 1,000kgs of Mercury. The next 8 biggest power stations in Australia combined emit less than 500kgs.
- The biggest power station polluter of PM2.5 in the nation is Tarong (QLD), by an astronomical amount, with 1,860,738kgs. It is not fitted with fabric bag filters to capture 99% of this pollution.
- Gladstone and Stanwell (QLD) are the two biggest power station emitters of NOx in the nation, with 34,901,400kgs and 31,507,340kgs, respectively.
- Particle pollution emissions PM2.5 from Gladstone power station increased by 23%.
Health effects of power station air pollution
Toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations causes a range of serious health issues including asthma, stroke, heart attack, reduced lung function and premature death in communities as far as hundreds of kilometres away. In a 2018 case study, epidemiologist Dr Ben Ewald estimated that 279 people die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic air pollution from the five coal-fired power stations in New South Wales alone. In addition, exposure caused 233 babies born with reduced birthweight, 361 people to develop type 2 diabetes and 2,614 years of life lost each year.2
Particle pollution (PM2.5, PM10)
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)
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)
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)
Mercury will enter the body if we breathe in contaminated air, drink contaminated water, eat contaminated food, or have our skin come into contact with it. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Exposure to high levels of any types of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing foetus. Effects on brain functions may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing and memory problems. Mercury also accumulates in the body. (Source: NPI)
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.
EJA’s analysis (Excel) on the National Pollutant Inventory is available here.