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‘Inconsistent, unreliable and of limited utility’: Australia’s air pollution data condemned by experts, ignored by regulators

By September 7, 2020 Air Pollution, Media releases

NEWS RELEASE

Double standards, legal loopholes and ‘unexplained’ errors in Australia’s air pollution data are preventing communities from accessing reliable information about the poor quality air they’re breathing.

Analysis by legal and policy experts at Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) finds the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI), Australia’s most comprehensive repository of information about toxic pollution, is failing communities on basic standards of rigour.

Earlier this year, a coalition of health, environment and community groups including EJA, made legal complaints to the Victorian and NSW EPAs over alarming increases of PM2.5 and PM10 pollution were reported in the NPI by Yallourn and Vales Point power stations. The Victorian EPA refused to investigate on the basis that they don’t consider NPI data reliable and the NSW EPA is still investigating, despite acknowledging that they don’t use the NPI for enforcement.

A vital tool to inform Australians about toxic substances entering their communities, the NPI has been analysed by Bruce Buckheit, former Director of the US EPA Air Enforcement Division, who finds: “NPI data is inconsistent, unreliable and of limited utility in assessing the emissions of coal-fired power stations in Australia…has not been updated in over 20 years and includes a substantial amount of data that is rated in EPA’s lowest category (“E”) for reliability.”

In recent weeks, three reports have confirmed the alarming rate of illness and fatalities due to air pollution from coal-burning power stations:

  • A peer-reviewed report found toxic air pollution from coal-burning power stations exposes 2.1 million Australians to dangerously polluted air and causes 800 premature deaths, 14,500 asthma attacks and 850 cases of babies being born with low birth weight each year.
  • New research in the Medical Journal of Australia found unborn babies whose mothers were exposed to smoke from the Hazelwood coal mine fire are at greater risk of respiratory infections in early childhood, despite not directly inhaling the pollution.
  • A team of volunteer actuaries modelled the economic cost of the health impacts of air pollution from coal-burning power. Their report finds the annual health bill amounts to $2.4 billion on conservative estimates, or more than two-thirds of federal government spending on the COVID healthcare package.

Exposure to these toxic pollutants worsens existing conditions like asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. It can cause heart disease, stroke, asthma attack, lung cancer, low birthweight babies, and type 2 diabetes. And, it leads to a huge number of premature deaths.

Nicola Rivers, co-CEO of Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), said:

“The NPI is the only community right-to-know tool for pollution and is the only annual source of information that people can use to find out how much polluting facilities near them are emitting. Yet state EPAs do not consider this data reliable for regulatory and enforcement purposes.

“Earlier this year, the Victorian EPA refused to consider alarming increases in toxic pollutants recorded in the NPI by Yallourn power station on the grounds that the data submitted to the NPI is not used for regulatory and enforcement purposes.

“This is an unacceptable loophole and double standard. Polluters report emissions to the NPI, but when challenged about anomalies, they claim that the data is not accurate. If the data isn’t accurate, why are they reporting it? This is misleading for communities who rely on the NPI as the only reliable source of information on the toxic pollutants they are exposed to.

“Even though state EPAs refuse to be informed by NPI data, much of their own data is based on the same emissions tests. For example, annual stack emissions tests, performed by an independent testing company over a few days, form the basis of the NPI data and the regulatory and enforcement data that goes to the EPAs.

“Given this, there is little justification for EPAs to claim that one set of data is inaccurate and reliable, but the other is not. Australians have a right to transparent and reliable data on the air they breathe. The issues with the NPI must be fixed as a matter of urgency.”

Max Smith, Clean Air Campaigner for Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), said:

“Coal-burning power stations are among Australia’s biggest sources of air pollution, yet people at serious risk have no access to reliable data on the toxic pollutants that power stations are pumping into the air in their community.

“Our laws and regulations fail to address problems in pollution hotspots – like the Latrobe Valley, the Hunter Valley and the New South Wales Central Coast, and monitoring does not effectively measure air quality for people who live closest to coal-burning power stations.

“People have a right to know what they are breathing. Air quality monitoring networks must be expanded to more effectively evaluate the exposure of communities vulnerable to frequent air pollution exposure and the issues with the NPI must be fixed so the community can confidently rely on this information as was intended when the NPI was set up.”

Background

The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is Australia’s most comprehensive repository of information about toxic pollution. It was introduced in 1998 in response to community right-to-know campaigns. Each year, polluters are obliged to report their emissions to air, land and water if they emit more than a specified mass of each of the NPI’s 93 listed toxic substances. These reports are merely an estimate of point source (eg. stack) emissions for the year based on a fraction of stack emissions derived by one-off testing conducted over a few days. For example, EnergyAustralia’s annual reporting of PM for Yallourn to NPI is based on two factors:

(1) continuous monitoring of total particulates; and

(2) a one-off test (for each flue/stack), carried out every two to three years, specifying what fraction of particulate matter belong to PM2.5 and PM10 ranges. The PM10 and PM2.5 figures are estimated by applying the one-off stack test factors to the data for total particulate matter. This makes annual proportionate measures of reported PM10 and PM2.5 considerably less robust than that of total particulate matter.

Polluters’ reports are then collated by the environmental protection agencies (EPAs) in each state and territory and published on the NPI website. Pollution reports can be downloaded by specifying one or more regions, industries, companies or substances. Other weaknesses of the NPI include:

  • Only 93 toxic substances are reported. By comparison, the United States’ Toxics Release Inventory contains 594 chemicals.
  • Reporting errors are widespread, are not remedied and queries are not responded to.
  • The NPI can only estimate pollution, it is not designed to prevent it.

The most recent National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) data shows Vales Point increased emissions of dangerous PM10 coarse particle pollution by 121 percent and PM2.5 fine particle pollution by 181 percent on the previous reporting year even though it was producing less electricity.

According to NPI data, the ageing coal-fired power station increased emissions of PM2.5 by an incredible 3000 percent since the 2012-2013 reporting period, despite only increasing electricity production by 63 percent over the same period.

Yallourn power station increased emissions of dangerous PM10 coarse particle pollution by 45 percent and PM2.5 fine particle pollution by 82 percent on the previous reporting year even though it had one of its generating units offline for maintenance during that time.

Environmental Justice Australia analysis

EJA’s concerns about the NPI are in its submission to the NPI review. Recommendations include:

  1. The NPI should be used by environmental regulators in their efforts to control pollution. State governments don’t use NPI data to ensure compliance with licence conditions, relying instead on separate reporting. State governments don’t determine pollution limits or pollution fees and levies according to the NPI, nor initiate compliance action when the NPI identifies polluters whose emissions appear to have significantly increased. There is no meaningful incentive or disincentive for polluters to report that they have significantly reduced their toxic emissions.
  1. NPI data must be accurate and reliable. Often, the NPI data is demonstrably wrong, and nothing is done to correct it. In other cases, the weakness of the industry developed methodologies for calculating emissions allow significant errors to be an accepted part of the system.
  1. The NPI needs to allow users to easily compare pollution year to year, facility to facility. The NPI website has barely changed since it was first established, and allows very limited functionality. It is not possible, for instance, to compare the toxic emissions from a power station year by year. Instead, users have to download the data for each year, then import multiple (csv) files into Excel to make this comparison.
  1. The NPI must be expanded to include other toxic pollutants. When the NPI was first developed in the 1990s, Australian governments made the pragmatic decision to start with 93 pollutants, pledging that the inventory would expand over time. By comparison, the United States’ Toxics Release Inventory contains 594 toxic substances.
  1. The NPI needs the backing of strong national air pollution standards and a national pollution control agency. State Governments have failed to control air pollution. Pollutant concentrations exceed the national ambient air pollution standards frequently in some communities, without meaningful consequences for polluters. The current review of the Federal Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act provides an opportunity to develop binding national pollutant standards that are enforced by a national EPA. EJA’s submission to the EPBC Act review provides more information.

More information on the NPI is on the EJA website. Environmental Justice Australia’s Clean Air Campaigner Max Smith and Co-CEO Nicola Rivers are available for interview. Media contact:  Margot Gorski, 0412 393 394, margot@prmatters.com.au

Environmental Justice Australia is a leading public interest legal organisation. Our lawyers act on behalf of people and community organisations to safeguard health; protect magnificent forests, rivers and wildlife; and tackle climate change.

 

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