Gladstone Power Station. Photo by Jan Arens

By James Whelan

The National Pollutant Inventory was agreed to by Australia’s nine state, territory and Commonwealth governments in 1998.

It is Australia’s most comprehensive annual report on toxic pollution to air, water and land, providing a level of community right-to-know that is otherwise unavailable.

It covers all major polluters and 93 different substances.

Every person has a right to know what pollution is being emitted into their air, water and land – and by whom.

The NPI fills that role.

Anyone can go to the NPI website and do a simple search to find out what pollution is happening near them. That makes it a powerful and essential tool for the community.

Environmental Justice Australia and the communities we support use the NPI extensively to identify major sources of air pollution, to understand trends and to advocate for pollution control.

But it’s far from perfect.

When the NPI was first developed in the 1990s, Australian governments made the pragmatic decision to start with 93 pollutants, pledging that the inventory would expand over time. But it hasn’t. By comparison, the United States’ Toxics Release Inventory contains 594 toxic substances.

The website that hosts the NPI is outdated and clunky. Error messages are common when you’re trying to do a basic search. Map functions are old or don’t work. Compared to modern websites, and their amazing functionality, it’s an embarrassment.

There are a lot of problems with the accuracy of polluters’ reports too.  Often, the NPI is data is simply wrong and nothing is done to correct it.  The 2016-17 data, for instance, included several obvious errors.

Bayswater power station reported emitting 73.5kg of mercury in 2017 while Eraring, Australia’s biggest power station, reported emitting just 1.3kg of mercury.

Either one of these reports is in error or one of these power stations is utilising a pollution control measure that should be mandatory for the other.

In the last two NPI reports (2015-16 and 2016-17), the operators of the Yallourn power station reported fine particle (PM2.5) emissions more than 50% lower than any year in the preceding decade. This is not credible, as the power station has not installed any new equipment to control pollution. Yallourn still doesn’t have bag filters, decades after this basic pollution control was fitted to power stations around the world.

In its last five NPI reports, EnergyAustralia reported emitting 160,000kg, 210,000kg, 130,000kg, 10,000kg then 59,400kg of fine particle pollution from its Mt Piper power station. If this was 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. In fact, EnergyAustralia had installed no new PM2.5 controls during this period. The variation did not reflect huge changes in energy output from the power station.

A coal tar plant over-stated its benzene emissions by a factor of ten. Concerned residents and an investigative journalist drew attention to the error. Until then, the 47 tonnes of benzene emitted in a residential area had not generated any attention by state or local government regulators.

These errors are just the tip of the iceberg.

A rigorous audit of the NPI data reported during the last decade would doubtless reveal scores of similar errors.

Reporting errors are not remedied. Even when the (bare bones) NPI staff are advised of an obvious error or omission in the dataset, errors can remain uncorrected for years.

Now in its twentieth year, the NPI is under review. There is a discussion paper and submissions on the review of the NPI close at 5pm on Friday 10 August 2018.

The review presents an opportunity to strengthen the NPI. But there is also a risk industry will try to have it weakened.

Environmental Justice Australia and the communities we support use the NPI extensively to identify major sources of air pollution, to understand trends and to advocate for pollution control.

We encourage individuals and non-government groups to make submissions.

Use EJA’s easy online tool to make a submission to the review of the NPI until 5pm on 10 August.

Pic: Gladstone power station, by Jan Arens