Thursday 3/11/16 The Age
The announcement that Hazelwood power station is to close next year is understandably distressing to many in the Latrobe Valley. This distress is well founded. Although the announcement was predicted for many years, state and federal governments have done essentially nothing over the past five years to ensure a smooth and gradual transition for the people of the Latrobe Valley away from coal and into other jobs.
Although there is still time for that to happen, governments and Hazelwood's owner, Engie, will have to work rapidly and with strong commitment to ensure the community is properly supported into the next phase. However, despite the anxiety and disruption to the local community the retirement of Hazelwood may cause, there is a very large benefit whose impact will be felt immediately – the health benefit.
People that live within 50 kilometres of coal-fired power stations face a risk of premature death as much as 3-4 times that of people living further away. Coal-fired power stations emit a range of toxic substances that have serious impacts on the communities that live near them.
Australia's National Pollutant Inventory reveals that the Hazelwood, Yallourn and Loy Yang A and B power stations – which are all located in the Latrobe Valley – emitted more than 4 million kilograms of dangerous fine particle pollution (PM2.5), 79 million kilograms of nitrous oxides and 122 million kilograms of sulfur dioxide in 2014–15. All three of these pollutants are extremely harmful to health, causing and worsening a range of medical conditions such as asthma, respiratory problems, heart attack, and cancer. Children and elderly people are particularly affected. Although some pollutants such as fine particle pollution can travel great distances, it is the local community that suffers the worst.
The Latrobe Valley has for decades and continues to bear an unfair burden for generating electricity from which the whole of Victoria benefits. Two per cent of Victoria's population live in the Latrobe Valley, and yet they bear the health burden of generating 85 per cent of Victoria's electricity from old dirty coal-fired power stations. While many have benefited from the jobs and the community that the power stations have generated, it comes with a heavy price.
Some believe the health impacts from power stations can't be that bad because governments assert pollution levels are acceptable. They need to be quickly disabused of that notion. Regulation of air pollution in Australia is not set at a level which properly protects the health of communities. Australia has national air pollution standards, however they are mired with problems. Standards reflect a lowest common denominator approach, because in practice they result from political negotiations between state and territory governments that are trying to protect their industries.
The government body responsible for administering the national standards – the National Environment Protection Council – admitted in 2011 that the standards are not meeting the requirement for adequate protection of human health. Even once standards are agreed to by all jurisdictions, states do not have to implement them into their pollution regulation. This has resulted in different levels of protection for different pollution affected communities across Australia, not one of which is adequate for human health.
Even the International Energy Agency, a relatively conservative body that is made up of the key energy-producing and consuming countries around the world, has recognised the severe health impacts from coal-fired power generation and recommended switching to renewables. In a report released this year it noted that in developed countries such as Australia, pollution from coal-fired power is one of the top two biggest air pollution killers.
It stated that without significant new regulation, pollution from energy generation in most countries will continue to rise, resulting in more deaths. It recommended that inefficient old power stations be closed, and that stringent pollution limits be imposed on all remaining power stations. Importantly though, the IEA stated that the simplest way to tackle air pollution is to not produce the pollutants in the first place – by switching to renewables.
Ultimately, there is no safe level of exposure to many of the pollutants released from coal-fired power stations such as fine particle pollution. If we continue to use coal to generate electricity we will continue to create toxic pollution which kills local communities. There is no technology that can be applied to coal to avoid that.
However, each tonne of pollutants that is avoided can have immediate and long-term health benefits. There are numerous examples from around the world that show health improvements within days of a reduction in air pollution – asthma and bronchitis attacks in children reduce, hospital visits decrease, heart attacks lessen. Over time, long-term illnesses should reduce as well – cancer rates, new cases of asthma, respiratory disease.
The long-term health study set up in the Latrobe Valley after the devastating Hazelwood mine fire to monitor the fire's long-term effects on the community may reveal some of these benefits once Hazelwood closes.
So while the closure of Hazelwood will cause justifiable anxiety and uncertainty in the Valley, it will also lead to less illness, less hospitalisation, less premature death. It will result in a healthier community which is better able to participate in the next phase of the Valley's future – one that is not dependent on old polluting technology for its success and prosperity.
There is an opportunity now to remedy the injustice from pollution impacts that the Valley has borne for decades by making sure that a just transition plan is quickly but thoughtfully developed, one that will not only assist the workers directly affected, but also transition the Valley to a healthy and sustainable economy.
Nicola Rivers is a lawyer and Director of Advocacy and Research with Environmental Justice Australia.