A new report into emissions limits applied to Australia’s power stations shows they are less strict than in the US, EU and China, and that state environmental protection agencies are too timid in enforcing them. By James Norman.

Our unhealthy power stations

Loy Yang power station, Yallourn, Victoria.
Loy Yang power station, Yallourn, Victoria.
Credit: Age Fotostock / Alamy

For Charmian Eckersley, keeping the windows and doors of her home permanently sealed has become an everyday necessity. Eckersley and her husband have lived in the Lake Macquarie suburb of Eraring, about 130 kilometres north of Sydney, since 1993. It is one of the fastest-growing population regions in New South Wales and only a short distance from Australia’s largest coal-fired power station – the Eraring power station.

“It looks like such a beautiful place,” Eckersley says. “This area is appealing to people because everyone has two-acre blocks. It’s supposed to be environmental living, close to Lake Macquarie. But of course, nobody tells you about the pollution when you first come here or how it affects your health.”

Eckersley says she worries about all the coal dust she has to brush off her clothes every time she hangs out the washing. “To tell you the truth of it, we should move – we shouldn’t be living here,” she says. “My partner has asthma and I realise it’s not a good place for him to be. I’m sure my lungs have been affected as well – I’ve got a terrible cough right now. It’s not good to be around so much noxious particles.”

Others living close to coal-fired power stations tell of similar anxieties. Irene Proebsting has lived with her partner for 16 years on a small property close to Tyers, a township 10 kilometres north-west of Traralgon. Their bush block is on a ridge overlooking Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, about 10 kilometres away from Loy Yang coal-fired power station.

“There’s a bush track I walk along just behind our place in what used to be a quarry,” she says. “Often from the top of that track you can see a toxic yellow haze just hanging in the air over the valley – especially at times when it’s still. You can just see the toxins hanging there. My partner has a chronic health condition so after the Hazelwood mine fire we were really asking ourselves how much more of this we could take. I’m constantly concerned about his health and how the pollution is affecting his health.”

In October 2014 while opening a new coalmine at Caval Ridge in Queensland, then prime minister Tony Abbott declared: “Let’s have no demonisation of coal. Coal is good for humanity.” Malcolm Turnbull, while frequently talking up “clean coal”, has also spoken about the coal-fired power stations being part of Australia’s and the world’s energy mix “for the foreseeable future”.

But a new report from Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) reveals that the 17 commercially operating power stations currently connected to the national grid in Australia are among the oldest and most inefficient fleet of power stations in the world. Emissions limits applied to Australian power stations are much less stringent than the limits in the United States, the European Union or China.

And despite many documented cases of these lax standards being breached – in some cases many times in a single year – no power stations in Victoria, NSW or Queensland have been prosecuted with any offence relating to their emissions levels over the past decade.

At power station in the Latrobe Valley, top-of-the-stack pollution particle limits are eight times higher than the limits set on coal-fired power stations in China, according to EJA’s report. Such emissions figures are emulated at power stations all over the country. The high levels of mercury being emitted from Australian power stations is particularly striking. Mercury is a deadly toxin that can have devastating effects on the nervous, digestive and immune system of humans.

Yet in NSW, a number of power stations are reportedly emitting mercury particles 666 times higher than current US limits. In Victoria and Queensland there are at present no licence limits set on mercury emissions, despite coal-fired power stations being the second-biggest source of man-made mercury emissions in Australia.

“We were told by state regulators in NSW and Victoria that it would be impossible to compare power station stack emission limits with the US, EU and China,” the report’s co-author, James Whelan, says. “But we knew it was a comparison that urgently needed to be drawn. I mean, why on earth in a rich country like Australia should we accept having power station emissions limits licensed to a much lower standard than in other countries?”

Whelan says it is unfortunately consistent with other lax regulations across emissions standards in Australia – including motor vehicles emissions, which are still 10 years behind European standards.

“Turns out it’s the same with our power stations,” he says. “The emissions limits were set according to recent technology when the stations were built – but many of them were built 30-plus years ago. On top of that we still have a culture of non-regulation in Australia. When we looked at the main Australian emissions regulators, the EPAs [environmental protection agencies], we soon realised they are a toothless watchdog. They are a watchdog that don’t exercise the regulatory power they are given, and don’t assert licence conditions strongly.”

The report states that the “lack of a national standard for power station emissions has led to each state regulating its power stations differently”, which resulted in the avoidance of a “significant layer of scrutiny that should be applied to power stations”.

On top of operating in a comparatively lax environment, up-to-date emissions reduction technology that is in place elsewhere in the world is simply not being invested in at any Australian power stations. This includes “wet scrubbers”, which remove 99 per cent of sulphur, and other catalytic reduction methods to reduce oxides of nitrogen levels. “We are advocating that governments should enforce these emissions reduction technologies onto power stations immediately,” Whelan says. “And we know they could do it with the stroke of a pen.”

The report recommends that the federal government commission an independent study into the health impacts of Australia’s coal-fired power stations, and calls on state governments to require all power stations to urgently reduce their toxic pollution in line with international best practice.

“Power consumers are moving away from coal voluntarily. Investors are moving away from coal voluntarily,” Whelan says. “For the coal industry to dig in its heels and say, ‘We are not going to lift a finger to reduce our impact’ – it just doesn’t make any good business or environmental sense.”

At present up to 900,000 Australians are living in areas in which their health may be affected by pollution from coal-fired power stations, the report says, but they have little to no control over the air they breathe or even access to information about the impacts on local air quality.

According to Ben Ewald, a Newcastle GP and member of Doctors for the Environment, there is a glaring contradiction at play. Federal politicians complain that rising electricity prices will lead to people dying from not being able to afford power – but they allow the coal industry to continue without proper emissions regulations.

“The scientific and medical understanding of the scale of the burden from air pollution has developed in the last 10 or 20 years,” he says. “The science wasn’t really known 40 years ago. It’s only been appreciated in the last decade or so and the standards have been very slow to catch up. The coal lobby has too big a voice in how it’s being managed and the EPA has been way too timid in doing its regulatory job.”

The Saturday Paper put a series of questions to both the Victorian and NSW EPAs, related to the reports findings. The NSW EPA responded that, “Measured emissions from NSW power stations are typically much lower than the required limits, indicating proper and efficient operation of the plant”. They did, however, acknowledge that “the EPA has not undertaken any prosecutions against power stations in the last decade”.

In response to the issues raised about the lack of mercury emissions testing, a spokesperson from the Victorian EPA said the organisation “intends to add mercury to power station air discharge tables to be in line with the Minamata Convention [an international treaty on mercury emissions]”.

However, with regard to air quality in the Latrobe Valley, the Victorian EPA noted that the air is “generally comparable to Geelong and metropolitan Melbourne” and that the authority “anticipates a new air monitoring network in the Latrobe Valley will be established during 2017 and 2018”.

Charmian Eckersley says governments and health authorities should at least provide local people with warnings about health implications before they move into areas adjacent to coal-fired power stations. “I can’t believe we have lived here for that long and yet we aren’t given any information about that power station and its health impacts. They should at the very least tell people that if you’re an asthmatic or your children are asthmatic, don’t live in this area.”

For Irene Proebsting, the health concerns of living in the Latrobe Valley have become impossible to ignore, especially after the Hazelwood mine fire. “My brother-in-law also died shortly after that fire. He was only 59. When I see my partner’s health, and when I see the toxic haze, it does really concern me terribly – how is it affecting his health? How is it affecting everyone’s health? Sometimes I get so anxious I think we should move away to the coast – but moving away from your support networks, especially when your partner is chronically ill, it’s difficult to contemplate starting again.

“Of course, it’s never proven that these things are directly related but it’s not hard to connect the dots.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2017 as "Infernal emissions".

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