A five-year audit of Australia’s most comprehensive pollution data highlights inaction on toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations, despite an estimated 4000 premature deaths from exposure.
Lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) have conducted a five-year audit of National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) data for Australia’s 11 coal-fired power stations closest to communities. The audit found that if decreases in electricity generation are accounted for, there has been little change to the amount of toxic pollution coal-fired power stations emit.
The audit also found that a trend of huge spikes in toxic pollutants from some power stations continued, which warrants investigation, according to the organisation who are experts in the health impacts and regulation of coal-fired power stations.
According to recent peer-reviewed research, in the last five years, approximately 72,500 children have suffered asthma attacks and symptoms, 4250 babies have been born underweight, and 4000 people have died prematurely from exposure to toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations.1
The legal organisation is escalating calls for stricter health-based emissions limits for coal-fired power stations that would require operators to install pollution controls to protect health and reduce premature deaths.
Doctor Bob Vickers, GP from the Hunter Valley
“Coal-fired power stations remain the biggest source of controllable air pollution in Australia. Not only have dangerous pollution levels remained relatively unchanged over the last five years, we continue to see huge inexplicable spikes in pollutants that pose a serious health threat to exposed communities.
“Coal-fired power stations produce vast quantities of the air pollutants most toxic to human health – fine particle pollution (PM2.5), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). There is no safe level of exposure to these toxic pollutants.
“This is a health crisis and should be treated accordingly. For too long, these power companies and the governments that regulate them have turned a blind eye to the health impacts on communities like ours. As a doctor on the ground in the Hunter region where communities are exposed to far higher levels of toxic pollution than other parts of the country, I see it right in front of me every day, treating a high volume of patients with asthma, lung conditions and heart problems.”
Max Smith, Clean Air Campaigner from Environmental Justice Australia said:
“People have long known there are health impacts associated with living near coal-fired power stations, especially communities who live close to them, the companies that operate them and the governments who regulate them – but it is only within the last five years that we’ve seen mounting research that attributes severe health impacts for thousands of people and hundreds of premature deaths to coal-fired power stations. Yet energy companies and our governments continue to turn a blind eye.
“The Australian Energy Council (AEC) has released a statement that sugarcoats the NPI data and implies coal-fired power station operators have actively reduced pollution over the last five years. We know this is not true because the industry hasn’t installed any new pollution control technologies and have been actively fighting regulations to control pollution.
“While it is the case that toxic emissions from some coal-fired power stations have gone down particularly during the COVID pandemic, this is due to a reduction in electricity generation. Other power stations have increased toxic emissions in line with increased generation and some have even increased emissions while generation capacity has decreased.
“In the last five years, at every opportunity, our governments have failed to do anything to make coal-fired power operators reduce toxic air pollution and protect community health. This health crisis can no longer be ignored. State governments must urgently legislate stricter health-based emissions limits for coal-fired power stations that would require operators to install pollution controls to protect health and save lives.”
Dr Suzanne Deed, Gippsland GP and psychotherapist said:
“The power station operators can say emissions are down all they like but in my time working in communities who live near coal-fired power stations, I’ve seen many people presenting with serious health issues known to be associated with air pollution including asthma, lung conditions and heart disease.
“There is no safe level of air pollution. Our governments should be doing everything they can to reduce toxic emissions to as close to zero as possible.”
Last year, Environmental Justice Australia lodged legal complaints with the Victorian and NSW EPAs over huge spikes in dangerous PM2.5 pollution from Yallourn and Vales Point power stations. The Victorian EPA refused to investigate claiming the NPI data was unreliable, despite using NPI data as the basis for their recently renewed 5-year licences for Victoria’s coal-fired power stations. The NSW EPA claim they are investigating though are yet to report on their findings one year later.
Findings from EJA’s analysis of this year’s NPI data for the period July 2019 – June 2020:
Coal-fired power stations remain the dominant source of Australia’s fine particle pollution PM2.5 (24% of the national ‘all sources’ total), oxides of nitrogen NOx (24%), sulfur dioxide SO2 (47%), and mercury (11%) — the air pollutants most toxic to human health.
Compare this to 2018/19 when power stations were 25% of the national ‘all sources’ total for PM2.5, 25% of oxides of nitrogen NOx, 44% sulfur dioxide SO2, and 9% mercury.
In 2015/16, power stations made up 28.5% of the national ‘all sources’ total for PM2.5, 27% of oxides of nitrogen NOx, 46.5% sulfur dioxide SO2, and 13.5% mercury.
Energy Company AGL has the first, third and fourth most polluting power station in the nation for sulfur dioxide SO2. With these three power stations, AGL is the biggest emitter of toxic air pollution in the country.
New South Wales
Delta Electricity reported a decrease in coarse particle emissions (PM10) and fine particle emissions (PM2.5) at its Vales Point coal-fired power station on the Central Coast of New South Wales.
Noting that last year’s NPI data revealed alarming increases in PM10 and PM2.5 emissions at Vales Point (121% and 181% respectively), the recent decrease in emissions supports the basis for the legal complaint made by EJA to the NSW Environment Protection Authority last year, which alleges that Delta Electricity breached its licence conditions by failing to operate and / or maintain plant and equipment at Vales Point in a proper and efficient manner.
The EPA has advised that it is investigating the matter, and we expect that the outcome of the investigation will be communicated this month.
Liddell’s emissions of toxic pollutants increased by 16%, correlating with an increase in electricity generation by 14%. Liddell’s emission of NOX and SO2 increased by 17% and 19%, respectively.
Eraring, Bayswater and Mt Piper are the second, third and fourth biggest power station emitters of SO2 in the country.
AGL’s Bayswater emits more mercury than all the other NSW-based power stations combined, at 60kg per year. The four other power stations combined emit 45kgs of mercury.
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 1,100kgs of Mercury. The next 8 biggest power stations in Australia combined emit less than 300kgs.
Fine particle pollution (PM2.5) emissions from Alinta’s Loy Yang B power station increased by 38%, and PM10 by 32%, while Loy Yang B’s electricity output increased by just 11%.
Yallourn and Loy Yang A are the second and third biggest emitters of PM2.5 in the nation, with 1,049,488 kgs and 364,198 kgs, respectively. Neither have fabric bag filters to capture 99% of this pollution. All the NSW power stations have fabric bag filters installed, so they each emit less than a third of Loy Yang A and less than one tenth of Yallourn.
AGL’s Loy Yang A is the biggest power station emitter of SO2 in the country, with 41,221,246 kgs.
The Victorian power stations also emit close to 300 kilograms of lead into the air each year. This figure dwarfs the expected 17kgs of annual lead remissions to air from a proposed secondary lead smelter in the Latrobe Valley.
Tarong power station is the biggest power station polluter of PM2.5 in the nation, by an astronomical amount, with 1,710,645kgs. It is not fitted with fabric bag filters to capture 99% of this pollution.
Gladstone and Stanwell are two of the biggest power station emitters of NOx in the nation, with 27,901,160kgs and 29,907,760kgs, respectively.
Fine particle pollution ( PM2.5) from Gladstone power station increased by 131%. This is on top of a 23% increase in PM2.5 emissions in previous year. This comes despite a 10% decrease in Gladstone’s electricity production in 2019/20 and a 6% decrease in electricity production the year before that.
Over the last five years, PM2.5 emissions from Gladstone increased from 49,664kg in 2015-16 to 161,078kg in 2019-20, an increase of 224%. Coarse particle (PM10) emissions from Gladstone increased from 146,800kgs in 2015-16 to 310,000kgs in 2019-20, an increase of 111%. The power station generated just 10% more energy in 2019-20 than in 2015-16, so that is not an explanation.
Emissions of oxides of nitrogen NOx, and sulfur dioxide SO2 at Tarong power station increased by 29% and 28%, respectively. This comes despite a 5% decrease in Tarong’s electricity production in 2019/20.
BACKGROUND ON THE NPI
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is Australia’s most comprehensive repository of information about toxic pollution. It was introduced in 1998 in response to community campaigns for right-to-know about toxic substances entering our environments, suburbs and homes, and which polluters are responsible for them.
Each year, polluters are obliged to report their emissions to air, land and water of the NPI’s 93 listed toxic substances. These reports are an estimate of point source (e.g. stack) emissions and fugitive emissions, derived from independent stack emissions tests. They are not based on actual continuous emissions monitoring.
Polluters’ reports are collated by the Environmental Protection Agencies in each state and territory and published on the NPI website. Pollution reports can be downloaded by specifying one or more regions, industries, companies or substances.
Weaknesses of the NPI
Only 93 toxic substances are reported. By comparison, the United States’ Toxics Release Inventory contains 594 chemicals.
Several sources of pollution are not required to be reported, including coal stockpiles, coal mines owned and operated by power stations and coal trains with uncovered wagons.
Reporting errors are not remedied and queries are not responded to.
Reports are estimated by the polluters, who have an interest in underreporting pollution.
Polluters are not held to account for reporting massive increases in pollution.
The NPI can only estimate pollution, it is not designed to prevent it. Australia’s air pollution laws are failing to protect the health of local communities and the environment.
The NPI is currently under review in a process that began in 2018.
HEALTH EFFECTS OF POWER STATION 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.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)
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