In April we released our annual analysis of the latest National Pollutant Inventory data (from 2018-19) which once again revealed that the biggest source of air pollution in Australia are coal-fired power stations. The worst offenders include two of Australia’s oldest power stations – Vales Point in NSW and Yallourn in Victoria. Both reported huge increases in some of the most toxic pollutants to human health.  

Toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations causes a range of serious health issues including asthma, stroke, heart attack, reduced lung function and premature death in communities as far as hundreds of kilometres away. They are responsible for an annual health bill of $2.6 billion, and it is estimated that 289 people die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic PM2.5 air pollution from the five coal-fired power stations in NSW. 

Australiawide the death toll from toxic air pollution stands over 4800 people a year, a clear sign that governments and regulators need to do more in the fight for clean air.  

The National Pollutant Inventory  

While it is far from perfect, the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is Australia’s most comprehensive repository of information about toxic pollution. Each year, polluters are obliged to report estimates of their emissions to air, land and water.  

In NSW our analysis revealed: 

  • Delta Electricity reported alarming increases in emissions from its Vales Point coal-fired power station on the Central Coast of New South Wales, including a 181% increase in PM2.5. 
  •  PM2.5 from Vales Point has increased 3000% since 2012-13. While the power station generated 63% more energy in 2018-19 than in 2012-13, this does not explain a 3000% increase in pollution.  

In Victoria: 

  • PM2.5 emissions from EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn power station in Victoria increased by an incredible 82%. Yallourn’s pollution control equipment is currently the focus of legal action initiated by Environmental Justice Australia in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).  

In Queensland: 

  • PM2.5 emissions from NRG’s Gladstone power station in central Queensland increased by 23%. This is despite a slight decrease in energy production on the year. 
  • The biggest power station polluter of PM2.5 in Australia is Tarong Power Station by an astronomical amount, with 1860738kgs.  

We formed a coalition of groups and launched a legal complaint  

EJA has written a letter to the Environmental Protection Agencies in NSW and Victoria, requesting investigations into possible licence breaches by the operators of these three power stations. These letters have been jointly signed by several local groups, environment organisations, and health advocacy groups, including: Voices of the Valley, Environment Victoria, The Coal Ash Community Alliance, The Nature Conservation Foundation of NSW, Doctors for the Environment Australia, Healthy Futures and the Lung Foundation of Australia.  

You can join the call as well by signing on to our complaints in NSW and Victoria 

The NPI was established by Australia’s ninestate, territory and Commonwealth governments in 1998, in response to community campaigns for the right-to-know about toxic pollution being released into the community. The idea was that informed communities and consumers would be a driving force in motivating polluters toward cleaner production and improved community health. To date, it has fallen short of that objective and offers – at best – an estimate of toxic pollution released into Australian communities.   

This year’s NPI data is a wake–up call for state governments and regulators. It’s time they made coal-fired power stations clean up their act.  

Every extra kilogram of pollution that Australian power stations emit contributes to respiratory illness and ultimately premature death. State governments should step up and set strong emissions limits that require these power stations to install pollution control like governments have done for other power stations around the world. These pollution controls can cut toxic pollution by more than 85 percent and save lives. 

Minimising the overall impacts of air pollution on public health  

Pollution control technologies to reduce toxic air pollution emissions from coal-fired power stations by more than 85 percent are standard practice, and mandatory in most other countries. In the United States, the Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved $2 trillion USD in the 25 years after it became law, 32 times more than the associated costs of pollution control.    

Regulation is particularly important in controlling air pollution. Individuals cannot readily control the extent to which they are exposed to harmful air pollution. People rely on the government to implement and enforce good regulation to protect their health. Polluters will pollute to the maximum amount allowed by law (and often more when enforcement is lax, as it is with air pollution in Australia).  

A 2019 review of international evidence by experts from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies found that cutting air pollution can prevent deaths within weeks. Researchers discovered that the health benefits of clean air are “almost immediate and substantial” and stretch into the long term, saving billions of dollars. The review examined the evidence for the reduction of illness after levels of toxic air were reduced. It showed dramatic reductions in asthma and children missing school, heart attacks and the number of small and premature babies.  

These findings highlight the critical need for governments to adopt and enforce stricter standards for air pollution immediately. Australians will experience substantial health benefits from cutting pollution.  

What can governments do to control air pollution and protect public health?  

The National Pollutant Inventory data is a wake-up call for state governments and regulators. It’s time they made coal-fired power stations clean up their act.  

There are 4 key actions government can take to control air pollution and protect the health of people and communities:   

  • Set strong national air pollution standards. 
  • Set strong stack emission limits for coal-fired power stations in line with international standards, which will require operators to install continuous stack monitoring and best practice pollution controls. This will reduce toxic air pollution from power stations by more than 85 percent. 
  • Finalise and implement a Clean Air Strategy, for implementation 365 days a year, which includes strong measures to reduce industrial pollution as close to zero as possible. 
  • Expand air quality monitoring to residential areas exposed to air pollution from coal-fired power stations to monitor licence compliance and measure the health risk to communities.

How can you get involved?  

Sign on to our complaint and join our coalition of health, environment and community organisations to let the Environment Protection Authority in NSW and Victoria know it is time coal-fired power stations clean up their act to protect community health. You can also join our coal pollution team NPI webinar on 12 May to learn more.