Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A five-year audit of Australian coal-fired power stations has found no decrease in the toxic pollution they emit, when decreases in electricity generation are taken into account, despite evidence of direct health impacts on nearby communities. 

Conducted by lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), the audit assessed 11 of Australia’s coal-fired power stations closest to communities, based on data from the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI).

EJA’s assessment named Energy Company AGL as “the biggest emitter of toxic air pollution in the country”, with the first, third and fourth most polluting power stations in the nation for sulfur dioxide SO2.

The authors also flagged the continuing trend of huge spikes in toxic pollutants from some power stations, which the EJA said warrants investigation. 

A study published by Greenpeace last year showed that over the past five years, around 4000 people have died prematurely from exposure to toxic air pollution from coal-fired power stations, prompting the EJA to call for stricter health-based emissions limits.

The study’s authors estimated that over the past half decade, 72,500 children have suffered asthma attacks and symptoms and 4250 babies have been born underweight as a result of coal burning.

General practitioner in the Hunter Valley Bob Vickers called coal-fired power stations “the biggest source of controllable air pollution in Australia.”

“Not only have dangerous pollution levels remained relatively unchanged over the last five years, we continue to see huge inexplicable spikes in pollutants that pose a serious health threat to exposed communities,” Mr Vickers said. 

EJA clean air campaigner, Max Smith, accused the Australian Energy Council (AEC) of sugarcoating NPI data and wrongly implying that coal-fired power station operators have actively reduced pollution over the past five years.

“While it is the case that toxic emissions from some coal-fired power stations have gone down particularly during the COVID pandemic, this is due to a reduction in electricity generation,” Mr Smith said. 

“Other power stations have increased toxic emissions in line with increased generation and some have even increased emissions while generation capacity has decreased.”

According to Mr Vickers there is no safe level of by-products the power stations create, including fine particle pollution (PM2.5), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). 

“This is a health crisis and should be treated accordingly,” he said. “For too long, these power companies and the governments that regulate them have turned a blind eye to the health impacts on communities like ours.”

“As a doctor on the ground in the Hunter region where communities are exposed to far higher levels of toxic pollution than other parts of the country, I see it right in front of me every day.”

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  1. This is not surprising. Expect that air pollution emissions will continue to increase even as fossil fuel derived generation decreases for several reasons – a) these plants don’t like operating at lower and variable capacity (so they run “dirtier”) which is what they are going to have to do more and more to survive as the grid decarbonises, b) as these plants head closer to inevitable stranded asset status, their owners will spend less and less on maintenance, hoping to just keep them “limping along”. In these circumstances pollution management equipment (scrubbers and filters) will operate less efficiently. These are “natural” outcomes of these plants operating in a market. And the resulting pollution is a clear market failure. What we need is for governments to step in and prevent these market failures from hurting people. They should support an orderly transition that protects workers, communities and companies. Notably even conservative think tank, the Blueprint Institute has proposed that the federal government should get involved. https://www.afr.com/policy/energy-and-climate/government-should-plan-for-coal-power-exit-think-tank-20201219-p56ozc