Reducing the toxic burden from coal power stations

The need for regulation

Nicola Rivers

Environment & energy, Government and governance, Health | Australia

22 September 2017

The Federal Government’s desire to extend the life of Australia’s ageing coal-fired power stations disregards the toxic burden coal-generated power places on Australian communities, Nicola Rivers writes.

According to the Government’s own National Pollutant Inventory, Australia’s coal-fired power stations emit more than 30 toxic substances. Many of these substances are carcinogenic or otherwise toxic to humans. Coal-fired power stations are the largest source of fine particle pollution, sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen.

These pollutants are extremely harmful to health, causing and/or worsening a range of medical conditions such as asthma, respiratory problems, stroke, angina, heart attack and cancer. They irritate and inflame the lungs leading to chronic lung disease and restricted lung growth in children. People with pre-existing medical conditions, children and elderly people are particularly affected.

Power stations are generally the main source of air pollution in nearby communities. For example, 95 per cent of air pollution in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria is from burning coal. In the Hunter Valley in NSW, power stations cause 30–40 per cent of fine particle pollution.

We all benefit from electricity generation, but the communities living near the power stations bear the brunt of the harm, carrying a significant health burden. Experts estimate that the five power stations in the Hunter Valley cause $660 million in health costs for the local community.

Pollution can also travel large distances.

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More than half of the oxides of nitrogen pollution and almost 90 per cent of sulfur dioxide pollution in Sydney’s airshed comes from power stations in the Hunter Valley and on the NSW Central Coast. That means millions of Australians are affected by the pollution from coal power. The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering estimated in 2009 that the pollution from power stations costs $2.6 billion a year in health costs across Australia.

Fine particle pollution is of particular concern.

It consists of tiny particles of combusted coal. It has all the toxic properties coal has and, as it is so small, it gets drawn down deep into the lungs, then to the heart and brain, causing heart attack and stroke. The World Health Organization has determined it to be a class one carcinogen.

Studies have shown there is no level of fine particle pollution intake below which health impacts do not occur — in other words, there is no “safe” level of pollution. This is why it is critical to reduce the toxic pollution from power stations: we must get as close to zero as possible.

I recently co-authored a report on toxic pollution and regulation of Australian coal-fired power stations — Toxic and terminal: How the regulation of coal-fired power stations fails Australian communities. Our analysis included a comparison of the emissions limits placed on ten Australian power stations versus those in the United States, the European Union and China.

In Australia, power station emissions are regulated by the states, with no national emissions standards. Our analysis found in almost all cases the emissions limits applied to Australian power stations are significantly less stringent than the standards in the European Union, the United States and China.

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For example, three NSW power stations have mercury limits 666 times less stringent than US power stations. Victoria and Queensland have no mercury limits at all. All Victorian power stations and the two Queensland power stations we analysed have particle limits that are less stringent than all three international limits. Sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen limits for many Australian power stations are significantly less stringent than international limits.

Because limits are so weak, power stations do not have to install post-combustion pollution reduction technologies that are in use overseas. No power station in Australia uses wet scrubbers (flue gas desulfurisation) — a technology that can remove up to 99 per cent of sulfur pollution — or selective catalytic reduction methods to reduce significant amounts of oxides of sulfur. Victorian power stations do not use bag/fabric filters to capture fine particles, but use less efficient electrostatic precipitators.

This is the fault of the state regulators. The failure of regulators to apply adequate emissions standards allows power stations to continue polluting excessively, unnecessarily harm people’s health.

Rather than having the goal of reducing emissions to as close to zero as possible to protect community health, it appears regulators have taken the approach of set — sometimes decades ago — and forget.

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State regulators need to immediately begin an emissions reduction program for power stations to reduce their toxic pollution in line with international best practice, reducing the health burden imposed on the community.

Thinking long term, a national solution with national standards is required.

The lack of a national standard for power station emissions means Australia is missing a significant layer of scrutiny. The Australian situation differs greatly to the experience in other countries, and wide-ranging discussions about appropriate limits are absent.

Australia needs binding, national emissions limits for power stations, set by the Federal Government. The health benefits and reduction in our national health bill would far outweigh the costs of installing the required technologies.

Ultimately though the only way to avoid death and disease from power station pollution is to move to renewable energy generation, which produces no toxic pollution.

Rather than extending the life of our dirty old power stations, we should be investing in and providing policy incentives for renewables so they can replace coal as soon as possible. This will save hundreds of lives each year and reduce the toxic burden on all of us.

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