By Adam Carey
Victoria’s environmental watchdog is reviewing the licences of the state’s three remaining coal-fired power plants, amid claims toxic emissions have contributed to an unusually high number of low-birthweight babies in the Latrobe Valley and even poisoned native dolphins.
The Environment Protection Authority is considering imposing tighter emissions caps on the three power stations, Yallourn, Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B, which together supply about 80 per cent of the state’s electricity.
At the end of the review, revised licence conditions will set legal emissions levels for potentially harmful substances including oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulphur, mercury and particulate matter.
But the EPA has given no indication it will impose new limits on carbon dioxide emissions, despite calls from Victorian environmental groups to do so as a way to tackle global warming.
Combined, the plants emit about one-third of Victoria’s greenhouse gases.
The EPA periodically reviews licences for Victoria’s power plants and operators can have their licences suspended or even revoked for breaching their conditions.
Medical experts have written to the EPA, urging it to impose much tougher conditions on the plant’s three operators, Energy Australia, AGL and Alinta, for the sake of public health in the Latrobe Valley.
In a submission to the EPA, voluntary organisation Doctors for the Environment Australia, whose scientific committee includes three former Australians of the year, has emphasised the potentially deadly health impacts of such emissions.
Their submission points to a recent US study that tied sulphur emissions from coal-fired power plants to low-birthweight babies downwind, and noted that there are more low-birthweight babies born in the Latrobe Valley than the statewide average.
“The incidence of low birthweight in these areas is 8.5 per cent, which is higher than the Victorian average of 6.6 per cent,” the submission states.
Low birthweight is associated with childhood health problems and with chronic heart and kidney disease in later life.
The EPA review has also heard that mercury emissions into the ocean food chain could also explain why a dolphin that lives in the Gippsland Lakes has among the highest recorded mercury levels of marine mammals in the world.
The Burrunan dolphin is an extremely rare marine mammal that lives almost exclusively in the Gippsland Lakes and Port Phillip Bay.
A study of dead Burrunan dolphins has found mercury levels three times greater than in living ones.
There are currently no caps on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants in Victoria.
A recent analysis on behalf of legal group Environmental Justice Australia estimated the three Victorian power plants emit about 3.3 tonnes of mercury per year.
Environmental Justice Australia spokeswoman Nicola Rivers said Victoria’s power plants, which opened between the 1970s and 1980s, should be made to invest in newer technologies that minimise emissions of toxic substances such as sulphur and mercury.
“These power stations have been allowed to get away with not installing pollution-controlling technologies that have become mandatory and commonplace in other parts of the world,” Ms Rivers said.
A spokesman for the EPA said new limits would be set at the end of the review process and submissions from the power plant operators would be taken into account, as is required by law.
The operators’ submissions are due by the end of March.
“The power station operators are preparing air quality assessment reports and responding to issues raised by the community,” the EPA’s spokesman said.
He said licences would be reviewed every five years to ensure they are kept up to date with science, policy and community expectations.
Published by the Sunday Age on 25 February 2018