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Australia needs a national pollution watchdog with “teeth”, says environment group (Newcastle Herald)

By Joanne McCarthy

AUSTRALIA needs a national pollution watchdog with “teeth” after two decades of pollution monitoring by the states that has failed to protect the environment and the community, a 20-year review of the National Pollutant Inventory has been told.

Environmental Justice Australia has cited Hunter region air pollution figures in a submission that argues governments should respond to the health cost of air pollution in the way they act to reduce the road toll.

While the National Pollutant Inventory has published industry-reported annual data on 93 toxic emissions since 1998 and provided “a level of community right-to-know that is otherwise unavailable”, it has failed its intent to improve air quality, the EJA said.

“In fact, ambient air pollution has increased in many Australian communities during the last 20 years,” the EJA, a not-for-profit public interest legal practice, said in a submission to the federal Department of the Environment and Energy which announced terms of reference for the NPI review in November, 2016, but will not report to Australia’s environment ministers until late in 2018.

The review includes whether stronger compliance and enforcement measures are needed after the EJA strongly criticised the NSW Government’s failure to respond to clear breaches of air pollution standards, significant increases in toxic emissions and inaccurate data reporting.

“There is a total disconnect between NPI data and state government pollution control,” the EJA said.

Most recent NPI data showed a 17 per cent increase in coarse particle emissions from the Hunter’s Mount Owen open cut coal mine but the NSW Environment Protection Authority did not require additional pollution controls. Fine particle pollution from the Hunter’s Bayswater power station jumped by 69 per cent and Vales Point emissions by 179 per cent but no additional pollution controls were imposed.

The EJA has also questioned how Bayswater power station could report emitting 73.5 kilograms of mercury in 2017 while Australia’s biggest power station, Eraring, reported emitting just 1.3 kilograms of mercury.

“Either one of these reports is in error or one of these power stations is utilising a pollution control measure that should be mandatory for the other,” the EJA said.

In the past five annual NPI reports EnergyAustralia has reported emitting 160,000, 210,000, 130,000, 10,000 and 59,400 kilograms of fine particle pollution from its Mount Piper power station, raising further questions about the reliability of NPI data, the EJA said.

“If this was accurate it would suggest Mount Piper had successfully reduced toxic fine particle pollution by 95 per cent in just three years, only to see emissions increase again by a factor of six,” the EJA said in its submission.

“In fact, EnergyAustralia has installed no new PM2.5 fine particle emission controls during this period. The NSW Government has turned a blind eye to blatant errors in NPI reports.”

The EJA said state governments did not determine pollution limits, fees or levies based on NPI data or initiate compliance action when the NPI data identified polluters whose emissions appeared to have significantly increased.

It recommended five ways to improve air pollution based on the NPI, with the priority “a national pollution watchdog with teeth”.

“The NPI’s desired environmental outcome is the maintenance and improvement of ambient air quality but in its current format it has failed to achieve this outcome,” the EJA said.

In its submission the Minerals Council of Australia acknowledged NPI data unreliability and said it detracted from the value of the data and “may misinform users”.

“The use of proxy calculations, potentially insufficient sampling, and the margins of error associated with calculations and measurement methods can make emission figures meaningless,” the Minerals Council said.

“The mining industry aims to report data accurately and reliably. However, the effort required to provide accurate input data is not always consistent with the accuracy of the outputs NPI generates. A high level of accuracy is required for input data… but the algorithms contain averages, default emission factors and at times coarse factors. These data limitations may not be well understood by the public when using NPI data to form a particular view.”

The Minerals Council rejected a focus on industry emissions compliance and penalties and called for reporting of “diffuse source” air pollution, including from vehicles and domestic heaters.

Published by the Newcastle Herald on 14 August 2018

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