In August 2018, members of our legal and research team hit the road to visit three air pollution hot spots on Australia’s east coast. Each of these hot spots — Lithgow, Gladstone and Rockhampton — featured in our Toxic and terminal report last year, which found the regulation of coal-fired power stations is failing Australian communities.

Australia has one of the oldest and least efficient fleets of coal-fired power stations in the world. For local communities, that means exposure to dangerous fine particle pollution, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, mercury and many other toxic substances. These pollutants contribute to serious health impacts, including asthma, respiratory disease and premature death.

There is no good reason why these communities should bear this burden. We know pollution controls can be fitted to control toxic air pollution from power stations, reducing emissions by as much as 90%. During our time on the road, we met with power station operators, environment protection authorities, and local communities, to discuss options that ensure both energy supply and community health.

Lithgow

The Lithgow community has very limited access to air pollution monitoring data. Unlike other NSW power station communities, Lithgow has no government air pollution monitoring, so the community relies on the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) for an estimate of the toxic pollution emitted each year from the Mt Piper power station. EJA holds concerns that the NPI may not provide an accurate picture.  In the last five NPI reports, EnergyAustralia reported emitting 160,000kg, 210,000kg, 130,000kg, 10,000kg then 59,400kg of fine particle pollution from the Mt Piper power station. Fine particle pollution contributes to the premature deaths of more than 3,000 Australians each year. If EnergyAustralia’s reports were accurate, it would suggest Mt Piper had successfully reduced toxic fine particle pollution by 95% in just three years, only to see emissions increase again by a factor of 6.

EnergyAustralia installed no new PM2.5 controls during this period. The variation did not reflect huge changes in energy output from the power station. If EnergyAustralia installed two readily available emission controls to the Mt Piper power station, emissions of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen would be cut by 90% or more, with an immediate health benefit in nearby Lithgow. But these emission controls are not required under the company’s state government-issued pollution licence. In fact, the power station is licenced to emit oxides of nitrogen (NOx) at concentrations up to 1500 milligrams per cubic metre, five times higher than the concentration allowable from power stations in Europe, Japan and the United States.
Stop press! On 15 August, NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton announced that the Mt Piper power station will be required to monitor toxic stack emissions continuously. That’s an important step toward pollution control and community health. Go Lithgow!

Gladstone

Gladstone has several major sources of air pollution, including two aluminium refineries, a coal terminal, cement works and a natural gas export facility. The Gladstone power station is the city’s dominant source of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen. While we were in Gladstone, EJA met with Department of Environment and Science officials who are responsible for the Gladstone and Stanwell power station pollution permits. They were unable to explain why the Gladstone power station is licenced to emit up to 2800mg/m3 of NOx (almost 10 times more than stack emission limits in other parts of the world). Or why the licence sets a limit for coarse particle pollution (PM10) that’s three times higher than the Australian standard. We plan to take up these and other matters with Queensland’s Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch.

Rockhampton

While we were in Rockhampton, we were advised by the managers of Stanwell power station that they “have no plans to instal Flue Gas Desulfurisation or Selective Catalytic Reduction due to the extensive capital cost of these technologies.” Stanwell is licenced to emit oxides of nitrogen at concentrations up to 1300 milligrams per cubic metre, 13 times higher than stack emission limits for coal-fired power plants in the United States. And there is no government air pollution monitoring or access to company monitoring data in the nearby Rockhampton and Gracemere communities. When we shared this news with folks who participated in our community forum, locals committed to following this up with Queensland Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch.