NPI report sees toxic pollutants soar again and highlights need for pollution controls on coal-fired power stations

MEDIA RELEASE

This year’s National Pollutant Inventory reveals soaring toxic emissions from coal-fired power stations and highlights the need for our ageing fleet of generators to be fitted with readily available emission controls required in most other countries.

Coal-fired power stations remain the dominant source of Australia’s fine particle pollution (26% of the national ‘all sources’ total), oxides of nitrogen (26%), and sulfur dioxide (49%) and are responsible for an annual health bill of $2.6 billion.[1]

“This year’s NPI confirms the urgent need for an overhaul of state pollution controls for coal-fired power stations and the introduction of national pollution standards at the federal level,” said Environmental Justice Australia researcher, Dr James Whelan who spent Friday analysing the data.

“State governments are allowing coal-fired power stations to emit as much as 20 times more toxic air pollution than permitted in other countries.”

“State premiers could, at the stroke of a pen, reduce this toxic air pollution by 95% or more by requiring coal-burning generators to install best available technology to control fine particle pollution, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.”

“Installing proper pollution controls could improve health outcomes for millions of Australians. In other countries, these power stations would not be permitted to pollute at this level.”

EJA’s analysis of this year’s NPI data has revealed:

  • There is a serious flaw in the NPI methodology. Most power station operators estimate (rather than measure) emissions using handbooks developed 20 years ago by the industry. The QLD government-owned Stanwell power station in Central Queensland installed continuous emission monitoring and its reported emissions of oxides of nitrogen doubled this year from 18 to 36 million kilograms.
  • Victorian power stations emit far more mercury than other coal-fired power stations in Australia. Compared to most power stations which report emissions well under 100kg per annum, the three Latrobe Valley power stations reported emitting 280kg (Alinta’s Loy Yang B), 292kg (AGL’s Loy Yang A) and 436kg (EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn).
  • EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn power station is the highest mercury emitter of any Australian power station.
  • The NRG Gladstone power station emitted more oxides of nitrogen (NOx) than any other power station, despite generating only half as much energy as Origin Energy’s Eraring power station.
  • The QLD government-owned Tarong power station emitted more than 2 million kilograms of deadly fine particle pollution, 15 times more than Origin Energy’s Eraring, Australia’s largest power station. Tarong does not have bag filters.

Coal mining is the second greatest source of coarse particle pollution (22%) after metal ore mining (28%). Australia’s 92 coal mines emitted 320 million kg of PM10 in 2017-18.

  • Of the 50 mines emitting the highest levels of coarse particle pollution (PM10) nation-wide, 25 were in Central Queensland. The Dawson, Hall Creek and Callide mines, all in the top five, reported their PM10 emissions had increased by 6%, 18% and 145% respectively.
  • Coarse particle pollution (PM10) from coal mines in the Namoi region has increased significantly. Emissions from Maules Creek increased to 9,850 tonnes (up 59% in one year), Boggabri increased to 5,147 tonnes (up 27%), Tarrawonga to 2,343 tonnes (up 31%) and Werris Creek to 2,247 (up 29%). The NSW EPA’s ‘Coalwatch’ scheme has again failed to control particle pollution.

“By measuring rather than estimating emissions, the Stanwell coal-fired power station found they were in fact emitting twice as much toxic pollution. All power stations should be required to install continuous stack monitoring,” Dr Whelan said.

“In other countries, coal-fired power stations are required to install best practice emission controls. Bag filters, flue gas desulfurisation, selective catalytic reduction and activated carbon injection reduce emissions of particle pollution, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and mercury respectively by 85% or more.”

“Australian governments should reject all proposals for new or expanded power stations unless they include modern pollution control technologies” said epidemiologist Dr Ben Ewald and member of Doctors for the Environment.

The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is self-reported by industry and not audited, but it is Australia’s most comprehensive source of air pollution data. The Federal Government publishes the NPI annually from information supplied by various industries, compiled by the states and territories.

For more information and interviews: Dr James Whelan, EJA, 0431 150 928

Media support: Livia Cullen, EJA, 0411 108 239  Contact Livia for power station photos or to arrange Interviews with concerned residents in the Hunter and Latrobe Valleys, Newcastle and Gladstone.

EJA’s analysis (Excel) and fact sheet on the National Pollutant Inventory are available here. 

Background briefing:

National insights and context

  • Coal-fired power stations are the dominant source of Australia’s fine particle pollution (26% of the national ‘all sources’ total), oxides of nitrogen (26%), and sulfur dioxide (49%).
  • They are responsible for an annual health bill of $2.6 billion.
  • Pollution licences set stack emission limits for power stations. International experts have advised the Victorian and NSW governments that the current limits are many times higher than those permitted in developed and most developing countries and that there is no technological barrier to adopting best practice limits and pollution controls.
  • Coal mining is the second greatest source of coarse particle pollution (22%) after metal ore mining (28%). Australia’s 92 coal mines emitted 320 million kg of PM10 in 2017-18.

Victoria insights

  • Victorian power stations emit far more mercury than other coal-fired power stations in Australia. Compared to most power stations which report emissions well under 100kg per annum, the three Latrobe Valley power stations reported emitting 280kg (Alinta’s Loy Yang B), 292kg (AGL’s Loy Yang A) and 436kg (EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn).
  • Victoria’s three brown coal generators are not fitted with bag filters. Bag filters have been standard practice internationally and in other Australian states for decades. They capture more than 99% of deadly particle pollution.
  • Pollution licences for Victoria’s three coal-fired power stations are currently under review by environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio. Health experts have urged the Andrews government to compel all three to install best available technologies to dramatically reduce toxic air pollution.

NSW insights

  • In the Hunter Valley where the Bayswater and Liddell power stations are located, fine particle pollution levels exceed the national standard every year. Coarse particle pollution (PM10) from coal mines in the Namoi region has increased significantly. Emissions from Maules Creek increased to 9,850 tonnes (up 59% in one year), Boggabri increased to 5,147 tonnes (up 27%), Tarrawonga to 2,343 tonnes (up 31%) and Werris Creek to 2,247 (up 29%). The NSW EPA’s ‘Coalwatch’ scheme has again failed to control particle pollution. Origin Energy’s, Eraring power station, has significantly reduced its fine particle emissions.
  • There is currently no air pollution monitoring in Lithgow near the Mt Piper power station or on the NSW Central Coast close to the Vales Point and Eraring power stations, so these communities do not know what they are breathing.
  • The Berejiklian Government recently reviewed the pollution licences for Vales Point, Mt Piper and Eraring power stations, requiring no new or additional pollution controls.
  • New power stations as proposed in 2017 by the Australian Minerals Council for the Hunter Valley would not be fitted with modern pollution controls.

Queensland insights

  • Tarong power station emitted more than 2 million kilograms of deadly fine particle pollution, 15 times more than Eraring, Australia’s largest power station. Tarong does not have bag filters, the most effective pollution control for fine particle pollution.
  • The NRG Gladstone power station emitted more oxides of nitrogen (NOx) than any other power station, despite generating only half as much energy as Origin’s Eraring.
  • Continuous emission monitoring at Stanwell revealed that the generator emitted twice as much NOx as previously estimated.

Health effects of power station air pollution

Toxic air pollution from power stations causes health problems including asthma, reduced lung function and premature death in communities as far as hundreds of kilometres away. Large parts of Sydney experience air pollution levels above the national standards, much of it from coal-fired power stations on the Central Coast, Lithgow and in the Hunter Valley.[2]

Epidemiologist Dr Ben Ewald has estimated that 279 people die prematurely each year as a consequence of toxic air pollution from the five coal-fired power stations in New South Wales alone. The health impacts also include 233 babies born with reduced birthweight, 361 people developing type 2 diabetes and 2,614 years of life lost each year due to uncontrolled air pollution from power stations.

Particle pollution

Particles in the PM10 size range are commonly present in air and may be drawn into the body with every breath. In the lungs, particles can have a direct physical effect and/or be absorbed into the blood. Airborne particles may also be swallowed. Absorption of the toxic material into the blood may lead to allergic or hypersensitivity effects, bacterial and fungal infections, fibrosis, cancer, irritation of mucous membranes, increased respiratory symptoms, aggravation of asthma and premature death. The risks are highest for the elderly and children. There is no threshold below which health effects do not occur. (Source: NPI)

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)

Exposure can induce headaches and anxiety. People with existing heart or lung conditions, such as asthma, are at increased risk. Repeated or prolonged exposure to moderate concentrations may cause inflammation of the respiratory tract, wheezing and lung damage. It has also proved to be harmful to the reproductive systems of animals in experiments and caused developmental changes in their newborn. (Source: NPI)

Oxides of nitrogen (NOX)

Low levels of NOX exposure can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs and can lead to coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness and nausea. Exposure can also result in a build-up of fluid in the lungs for 1-2 days after exposure. Breathing high levels of oxides of nitrogen can cause rapid burning, spasms and swelling of tissues in the throat and upper respiratory tract, reduced oxygenation of tissues, a build-up of fluid in the lungs, and even death. Skin or eye contact with high concentrations of oxides of nitrogen gases or nitrogen dioxide liquid will likely lead to serious burns. (Source: NPI)

Mercury

Mercury will enter the body if we breathe in contaminated air, drink contaminated water, eat contaminated food, or have our skin come into contact with it. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Exposure to high levels of any types of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing foetus. Effects on brain functions may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing and memory problems. Mercury also accumulates in the body. (Source: NPI)

[1] Tom Biegler, ‘The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Externalities of Power Generation in Australia’ (Report, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, March 2009)

[2] SMH 7/2/19 ‘The Sydney suburbs at risk from worsening air quality’.

 

Support our work

DONATE NOW

Get updates

SIGNUP HERE

Stay connected