By Bronya Lipski

Let’s start this discussion with the thought that the air we breathe belongs to everyone. We can’t divide the air space into boundaries that pollution can be contained in. Most of us are exposed to whatever is emitted into the atmosphere – whether we’re close to the emission source, or hundreds of kilometers away.

Throughout 2018, two significant regulatory and policy developments have been underway that will have long-lasting impacts on air pollution in Victoria.

The first is the Environment Protection Authority’s review of the coal-fired power station licences in the Latrobe Valley. During this review, Environmental Justice Australia engaged air pollution and power station experts from the United States – including the former Director of the US EPA Air Enforcement Division – to analyse the power station licences, the power station air modelling, and the power station responses to community concerns.

In short, these experts determined that the Latrobe Valley power stations are over-polluting and under-regulated. Their reports show that current regulations don’t protect community health and that Victorian power stations are not keeping pace with standard pollution controls required in most coal-burning countries.

That’s right. Standard.

This can be fixed pretty easily, with the requirement that the power stations install pollution controls that remove literally eye-watering amounts of air pollution from the atmosphere. Selective catalytic reduction removes up to 90% of oxides of nitrogen. Flue gas desulfurisation removes up to 99% of sulfur dioxide. Activated carbon injection removes up to 80% of mercury. And fabric bag filters – technology far superior to the current use of electrostatic precipitators by Latrobe Valley power stations – are better for fine particle pollution reduction.

If the EPA doesn’t require the power stations to install these pollution controls, the Latrobe Valley will continue to be exposed to the pollution of some of the most under-regulated power stations in the world.

The other big development in air pollution policy and reform in 2018 is the development of the Victorian Clean Air Strategy initiated by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Earlier in the year, DELWP released an air quality statement, outlining the Government’s intention to develop the strategy and what the Government would focus on. Unfortunately, this statement focused on managing pollution, rather than preventing it, and emphasised ‘cost-effective’ options.

When it comes to protecting people’s health, air pollution shouldn’t be managed in a cost-effective manner. It should be reduced to as close to zero as possible, regardless of expense.

We know that air pollution kills more than 3000 people a year in Australia, and that it contributes to disease and disability of thousands more. Whilst individuals can take steps to minimise their exposure to air pollution and protect their health, the overwhelming amount of air pollution comes from sources that should be subject to pollution reduction programs, including coal-fired power stations, vehicle and shipping emissions, wood-smoke heating, and logging coupe burns. By requiring these industries to reduce their toxic emissions, particularly where pollution reduction technologies can be installed in industrial facilities – technologies that are standard throughout the world but not in Victoria – we can move towards reducing Victoria’s air pollution to as close to zero as possible.

I’m always horrified to read articles like this, where health and air pollution experts encourage people to limit their behaviour during times of peak air pollution. We shouldn’t have to restrict our lives because of poor air quality when the solutions to controlling it are simple.

The air doesn’t just belong to the heavy polluters who can buy licences to pollute. The air doesn’t just belong to our environment protection authorities who dictate what the ambient air quality should be and which emissions standards can and can’t be made stricter.

The air belongs to everyone.

The public interest in the conditions and obligations of licensees under Victoria’s environmental protection law exceeds the private rights of heavy air polluters.

Air pollution should be prevented, not ‘managed’.

The EPA and DELWP should be using these opportunities to protect our health, and safeguard our air quality for future generations.

P.S. The NSW EPA is currently reviewing the environment protection licences for three power stations – Eraring, Vales Point, and Mount Piper. Submissions are open until mid-December.

Read our expert reports and submissions to the Victorian power station licence review here.

Read out submission to the Victorian Government’s Clean Air Statement here.

You can send your thoughts to DELWP on what the air pollution strategy should be via air.quality@delwp.vic.gov.au