Australia's biggest coal-fired power stations are permitted to dump toxic pollutants on nearby populations far in excess of overseas counterparts, even those in China, a survey by Environmental Justice Australia found.
The study of 10 of the largest plants in NSW, Queensland and Victoria shows limits of key pollutants – such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates – typically far exceed those in US, European Union and China.
The Toxic and terminal report said that 900,000 people live dangerously close to power stations, with their pollution well-documented as causing increased levels of asthma, respiratory illnesses and heart disease.
Prevailing winds meant people living further away were also exposed, with some 87 per cent of Sydney's sulfur dioxide pollution derived from five coal-fired power stations in the Hunter.
It was very surprising that so many of our limits are so far behind the three other jurisdictions we looked at, Nicola Rivers, research director at the EJA, said.
Neither Queensland nor Victoria, for instance, impose limits on emissions of mercury, a toxin that accumulates in the environment and harms brain development. In NSW, the limits were 666 times those in the US.
Questions arise about enforcement of those limits overseas, with China's chronically bad air suggesting patchy compliance at best in that nation. But determining how well even weak rules were applied in Australia is difficult, given the availability of accurate and audited data, Ms Rivers said.
It's just a black hole, essentially, both from the perspective of what they are really emitting, and what the regulators are doing about it, she said.
Victoria's Environment Protection Authority, for instance, has been investigating EnergyAustralia's Yallourn plant for admitting it simplified pollution to claim it was operating within pollution limits even when it was not.
They say 'at times of excessive pollution, we simplify our report by telling you we are operating at the limits', Ms Rivers said. The EPA pollution abatement notice said there was no reliability in their reporting.
We are always open to improvements suggested by the EPA, an EnergyAustralia spokeswoman said. We've completed the review as directed and are implementing the agreed improvements.
A spokesman for EPA Victoria said the agency had issued three pollution abatement notices to the company. Two of them addressed the calculation procedures for air discharges, which could have led to a potential breach of condition LI_G5 of the EPA licence.
All notices have been complied with and no further action is anticipated, he said.
NSW's EPA is conducting its own investigation of reporting breaches. These include claims reported by Fairfax Media, that the Bayswater power station had deliberately masked emissions by burning better quality coal in the part of the plant being monitored.
The EJA report also highlighted what it called enormous discrepancies in emissions reported by a range of NSW power stations compared with previous years. For instance, emissions of fine particulates at the Mount Piper plant – also owned by EnergyAustralia – sank 92 per cent between 2014-15 and the following year.
Eraring – Australia's biggest power station – similarly cut its emissions of PM2.5 particulates (measuring 2.5 microns or smaller) by 60 per cent even as electricity generation grew. Vales Point also reported a big drop.
None of these companies reported installing new pollution reduction technologies that could explain this drop, the report said.
Ms Rivers said the public needs to know what's coming out of the stack in real time.
That way you could really see what the are emitting and whether they were breaching their licences, Ms Rivers said. They would find it much harder to fudge any of their reports.
All power stations must meet strict environment protection licence emission concentration limits designed to protect the environment and health of the community, a spokeswoman for the NSW EPA said.
Its own review suggested the blending of coal is not undertaken at NSW power stations because of the logistical difficulties and costs, she said.
Fairfax sought comment from the energy and environment ministers in NSW and Victoria.
The NSW government has been caught out yet again with lax rules for big polluters, Mehreen Faruqi, the NSW Greens environment spokeswoman, said. They need to get serious about air quality and give NSW the strongest air quality protections in the world.
Both EPAs in NSW and Victoria said power plant operators were required to meet strict environmental protection standards.
Normal operations are usually well below maximum limits set, the EPA Victoria spokesman said.
The EJA's Ms Rivers, though, said none of the plants surveyed in the three states had pollution-reducing devices that could remove sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides because regulators didn't demand them.
Because their emissions limits are so high, you can easily meet your emissions limits without putting those pollution-reduction technologies on, she said.
On each of the major pollutant gauges, such as particulates, the 10 plants lagged some or all of the three overseas markets used for comparison, EJA said.
Particulates can enter the lungs or even the blood stream if small enough, damaging the inhaler.
Power stations were also Australia's biggest source of sulfur dioxide, accounting for 47 per cent of the 491,000 tonnes omitted annually.
AGL's Bayswater and Loy Yang power stations were the largest two sources.
For oxides of nitrogen, power stations account for just over a quarter of Australia's total emissions of about 363,000 tonnes a year, edging out motor vehicles in scale, the report said.
Bayswater is the largest of the emitters among the 10 surveyed, EJA said.
In Europe, only Germany placed a limit on mercury. China matches that level, while most US plants had stricter standards, especially for black coal. (See chart below.)
The mercury limits vary for NSW power plants but neither Victoria nor Queensland impose them.
Ms Rivers noted that so-called high efficiency, low emissions (HELE) power plants are often touted by proponents of coal for having lower emissions of greenhouse gases than Australia's aging sub-critical power stations.
But without additional pollution reduction devices, their emissions of toxic pollutants would be little better than existing plants based on coal burnt.
She noted that a Minerals Council report backing the economics of a HELE plant to support a new coal-fired station implied none of the scrubbers or other costly pollution-cutting technologies.
So it's definitely not the answer, Ms Rivers said.
By Peter Hannam
Published by The Age on 15 August 2017