By Peter Hannam
Air pollution from NSW’s five coal-fired power stations carry a “substantial health burden”, including leading to an estimated 279 deaths a year with thousands more to come before they close, a new study has found.
Ben Ewald, a GP and public health lecturer at the University of Newcastle, said the impact – including 233 low-birth weight babies and 369 people developing Type 2 diabetes annually – was much worse than he expected.
“Literally hundreds of people are dying preventable deaths every year because of coal-fired power,” Dr Ewald said, adding, it was “nothing short of a public health scandal” that 3429 more people will die before the plants reach scheduled closure dates.
The study, commissioned by Environmental Justice Australia, examined the effects of fine particle pollution with a diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller emitted by the plants. Coal combustion is one of NSW’s biggest sources of such pollution, with prevailing winds often dragging the particles – the smallest of which can enter lungs and the bloodstream – over major population centres.
While filters catch most of the pollution at the plants – AGL’s Liddell and Bayswater, Delta’s Vales Point, EnergyAustralia’s Mt Piper and Origin’s Eraring – they emit secondary particles that most other nations ban.
“Australian power stations are operating without the modern pollution control technologies and they’ve been allowed to get away with it for years and years,” Dr Eward said. “That wouldn’t be the case anywhere in Europe or North America, or even in most of Asia.”
The Environment Protection Authority is now reviewing the licences of three: Vales Point, Mt Piper and Eraring. By the time the last of the five is due to shut in 2042, the number of expected low-weight births would be 3029, with new onset diabetes put at 4412, the study found.
Guy Marks, principal investigator at the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research and a professor at UNSW, said Dr Ewald’s research was “certainly at the cutting edge of this work”.
“He’s made a series of assumptions that are plausible,” Professor Marks said. “It’s a useful way to try to bring to the government’s attention to the price there is to pay from high-emissions intensity [generation].”
The impact tally is likely to be conservative because it only focused on three health outcomes caused by long-term fine particle air pollution. It did not include health damage from short-term pollution spikes such as asthma and exacerbated lung disease, nor the effects of ozone, mercury and other toxin exposures, the report said.
A NSW Health spokeswoman said the agency had conducted similar research but identified lower premature deaths. “The discrepancy in the number of power station-related loss of life appears to be largely due to the assessment of the amount of power station-related PM2.5 that people are exposed to.”
Dr Ewald’s approach, particularly estimates of the proportion of sulphur-dioxide and nitrous oxides in Sydney from power stations, “requires further scrutiny before firm conclusions can be drawn about its validity”, she said.
Major energy firms rejected the report, with EnergyAustralia calling it “inaccurate” and yet to be formally peer-reviewed.
“[W]e strongly reject the implication that our operations pose unacceptable risks to human health,” a spokesman said, adding the paper was “needlessly upsetting for the community”, a spokesman said.
An AGL spokesman said the company was committed to improving its plants performance, and said both complied “with environmental laws and environment protection licence conditions set by the [EPA].”
But community groups said tougher controls were well overdue.
“It’s weak legislation” that had allowed high pollution levels to continue, Julie Favell who convenes the Lithgow Environment Group, said. “It’s shocking to think that it’s gone on for so long.”
Sue Winn, whose family lives within a few kilometres of Vales Point and includes several asthma sufferers, said they had long had pollution “raining down” on them.
“There’s got to be poor health outcomes by being exposed to this day in, day out and night in, night out,” Ms Winn, secretary of the Mannering Park Progress Association, said.
Greens environment spokeswoman Cate Faehrmann has introduced a bill into the NSW parliament to limit the amount of toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations in the state.
Dr Ewald’s report “should send shockwaves through the government”, she said.
“It is unacceptable that toxic emissions from Australia’s power stations are multiple times higher than what is allowed in the EU, the US and China,” Ms Faehrmann said. “We hope the government and Labor will put people’s health ahead of the profits of AGL and Origin Energy and support the bill when it is debated on Thursday.”
Thsi story was published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 November 2018.