By Peter Hannam
A Daley Labor government would review the emissions standards of all NSW’s coal-fired power plants and finalise a 10-year plan to improve air quality in the state.
The pledge came as Sydney weathered its hottest day in a year on Thursday, with temperatures topping 39 degrees at Observatory Hill and 40 degrees in the west, capping what was most likely the city’s hottest January ever.
In the run-up to the expected jump in electricity demand, a generation unit at the AGL Liddell plant and one at Origin’s Eraring plant failed, driving up wholesale prices to more than $14,000 an hour, underscoring the fragility of the sector.
“As our fleet of coal-fired power stations comes to the end of their lives, they will become increasingly unreliable, especially in extreme weather situations, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change,” Adam Searle, Labor’s energy spokesman said.
Labor’s promise to review pollution from coal-fired plants came as environmental groups appealed to Premier Gladys Berejiklian to impose higher pollution controls on three power stations after each had its five-year licence renewed by the Environment Protection Authority without significant change.
In a letter to the Premier, Environmental Justice Australia said the EPA had missed an opportunity to require plants to introduce technology that was standard in Europe, US and even China. Sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine-particle pollution are among the toxic emissions.
James Whelan, an EJA researcher, said the EPA’s review of the three licences – for EnergyAustralia’s Mount Piper plant near Lithgow, and the two Central Coast plants of Origin’s Eraring and Delta’s Vales Point – found the need “to significantly upgrade the power stations was not warranted”.
“We’re blue in the face with the EPA,” Mr Whelan said.
For its part, the EPA said air pollution standards were similar elsewhere in Australia and “air pollution concentrations were low by world standards”.
“Environment protection licences can be reviewed and varied at any time, and the EPA continues to work closely with NSW Health and other government agencies in considering the available evidence to inform regulatory priorities,” it said.
NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said all of the state’s power stations “operate under strict controls”.
“The EPA will take action against any operator that does not meet licence conditions,” she said.
Mr Searle said a Labor government, if elected in March, would order the EPA to review emissions standards that apply to each coal-fired power station. In consultation with industry and the community, it would “ensure they meet world-class standards for community health and safety and are consistent with meeting Australia’s carbon emission reduction targets”.
A Labor government would also review the locations of air quality monitoring stations near power stations for their effectiveness, and would establish new ones in the vicinity of plants “where no adequate monitoring currently exists”, Mr Searle said.
Ben Ewald, a Newcastle GP, and member of Doctors for the Environment, said the EPA had “decided that preventing 279 premature deaths and 361 cases of diabetes per year is not warranted, and that the 233 babies born underweight because of power station air pollution should just put up with it”.
“The decision makers in the EPA are ignoring compelling health reasons to clean up power station air pollution,” Dr Ewald said. “Modern pollution controls are required on vehicles, so why not power stations?”
Along with the coal-plant conniptions, EnergyAustralia’s Tallawarra gas-fired plant near Wollongong has been offline, taking 453 megawatts of generation capacity with it.
The rupture of a cooling pipe in mid-January is being repaired but “these assets are complex pieces of machinery and, with any work we do on plant and equipment, safety comes first”, a spokesman said.
The company similarly took “great care to ensure emissions from our power stations remain within licence limits and that any impacts from our operations are socially and environmentally acceptable”, he said.
Mt Piper’s coal power plant licence had been changed to include the new Springvale mine water treatment facility, which will receive and treat water from the nearby coal mine that is currently being released into the Coxs River.
Three ambient air quality monitoring points, previously included in the licence for the adjacent shuttered Wallerawang power plant, would now be included in Mt Piper’s licence, the Energy Australia spokesman said.
This story was published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 31 January 2019.