By Peter Hannam
The state’s five coal-fired power stations are allowed “unnecessary variation” in their pollution and operate “well below” licensed limits, providing scope for more consistent and tighter controls, the Environment Protection Agency has found.
The review by the watchdog – prompted in part by reports of unexplained falls in pollution from some plants even as power output rose – made a string of recommendations for an industry that contributes NSW’s largest share of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide.
The survey of 2011-16 air emissions found “extensive compliance” with limits, and uncovered no evidence plants had blended coal to deliberately lower emissions during testing periods.
A year ago, Fairfax Media cited documents showing staff were given precise instructions as far back as 1991 at the then government-owned Bayswater power plant on how to blend coal to avoid triggering pollution alerts.
The EPA review noted that inconsistent pollution limits apply. For instance, Delta Electricity’s Vales Point power station is allowed to emit concentrations of fine particle pollution that were twice those permitted for Origin Energy’s Eraring plant 25 kilometres away. Vales Point’s permitted mercury concentrations were also five times higher than those at the neighbouring plant.
“There has been no rhyme or reason to the approach taken by the NSW EPA to licensing toxic pollution from power stations,” James Whelan, a researcher with Environmental Justice Australia, said.
“By implementing the recommendations in this report, the NSW EPA will begin to hold power generators to account for the toxic pollution they emit and provide some impetus for pollution control.”
The EPA did not give a timeframe for when it might seek an overhaul of permitted pollution levels but has set up a working group to oversee implementation of the review’s findings.
“A number of recommendations were identified by the review and the EPA will work with the power stations to address these, including resolving some inconsistency in regulatory requirements between the power stations, and opportunities for continuous improvement,” a spokeswoman said.
Ben Ewald, a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia, said it was “shocking” Energy Australia’s Mount Piper power station had no cap for sulphur dioxide, nor for the sulphur content of the coal it burned.
“[T]he nearby town of Lithgow has no EPA ambient air monitoring, so the local community has no idea what it is exposed to,” Dr Ewald said.
EPA said Energy Australia operated three monitoring sites near Mount Piper.
For plants that have caps on the sulphur content of their coal, Liddell – which AGL plans to shut in 2022 – has double the limit of Eraring or Vales Point.
The discrepancy suggests curbs are set for available coal, not to protect health or the environment, EJA said.
Jeremy Buckingham, NSW Greens energy spokesman, said current emissions standards were inadequate, even before taking their carbon pollution levels into account.
“Maximum emission limits should be significantly lower and all coal boilers at all power stations should have continuous monitoring in place,” Mr Buckingham said. “There should also be consistent monitoring of air quality in nearby towns and areas.”
Fairfax Media also sought comment from Gabrielle Upton, the NSW Environment Minister, and Don Harwin, NSW Energy Minister.
Published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 May 2018