Coal-related pollutants continue to rise at many of the country's biggest mines, power plants and export facilities, prompting demands for stricter controls to limit health damage costing billions of dollars a year.
The latest National Pollutant Inventory, released at the end of March, revealed the extent of 93 key toxins from 4000 enterprises, including particulates that can spur premature death by worsening existing heart and lung conditions.
Victoria's Hazelwood brown coal-fired power station, which shut on Friday, emitted 61,425 tonnes of toxins in the year to June 30, 2016, one of the largest totals. The tally included almost 700 tonnes of fine particulates with a width of 2.5 micrometres – about 1/30th the width of a human hair – that can enter the blood stream.
While Hazelwood's emissions fell over the year, those at Loy Yang B power plant in the Latrobe Valley jumped 13 per cent and Yallourn's 2 per cent.
In NSW, the Bayswater coal-fired power station reported a 770 per cent jump in toxic coarse particle pollution (known as PM10, of about 10 microns size) over the past five years, while Queensland's Tarong power plant recorded a 237 per cent increase in just one year.
The latest NPI data reveal the total failure of Australian governments to control air pollution and highlight the need for much stronger pollution controls and regulation, James Whelan, a researcher for Environmental Justice Australia, said.
Dr Whelan said the annual health damage in Australia from air pollution was between $11 billion and $24.3 billion.
That total squares with a study conducted for the NSW government six years ago – and given little publicity – that estimated yearly costs in that state were about $6 billion.
Dr Whelan said particulate pollution from coal mining had tripled in the past decade. Pollution from mines such as Bulga in the Hunter Valley increased 32 per cent in the past year. At Drake Coal in Queensland, the increase was more than four-fold.
Coarse particulates (PM10) emitted by Newcastle's three coal terminals also rose 25 per cent last year, much faster than the increase of about 10 per cent in coal volumes, he said.
Taking in Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle, coal-fired power plants contributed 87 per cent of the area's 187,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and more than a third of the 724 kilograms of mercury registered over the year.
Fairfax Media sought comment from the federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg. Victoria's Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio declined to comment.
It's a stark reminder that we need to be mindful of all the impacts of pollution, not only carbon, Tony Burke, federal Labor's environment spokesman, said.
The NSW Environment Protection Authority said the 2015-16 NPI revealed an overall reduction in the state of 13 per cent in PM10 and a 24 per cent fall for PM2.5 particulates.
The NSW government led the review of the national standards for airborne particles and, as a result, NSW and Australia now have one of the toughest packages of standards for fine particles in the world, an EPA spokeswoman said.
The EPA, though, had been asked to review the anomalously steep drop in particulate emissions from two coal-fired power plants at Vales Point and Mt Piper.
According to the inventory, Vales Point reported a decline of about a third in PM2.5 emissions even though power generated rose about 10 per cent. For Mt Piper, the dive was in the order of more than 90 per cent even as electricity output rose more than 15 per cent.
These two are clearly under-reporting, Dr Whelan said.
NSW was tasked with developing standards for particulate matter under the National Clean Air Agreement but failed to advocate effectively for standards that would protect human health, Mehreen Faruqi, NSW Greens environment spokeswoman, said. NSW's proposal was so bad, Victoria actually went it alone and adopted more stringent standards.
Penny Sharpe, NSW Labor environment spokeswoman, said the commitment to stringent air quality standards was not an academic exercise. It is an issue of life or death.
NSW has signed up to lower air quality standards than recommended by the World Health Organisation, Ms Sharpe said, noting that proposals such a giant waste incinerator fo Eastern Creek in Sydney's far west has the potential to make things worse.
By Peter Hannam