New air pollution standards: The good, the bad, and the not strong enough

Tuesday 15 December 2015 was an important day for clean air.

Australia’s nine environment ministers met to decide on new national air pollution standards for coarse particles (PM10) and fine particles (PM2.5).

NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman proposed the adoption of standards for PM10 24 hour average (50 micrograms per cubic metre) and annual average concentrations (25ug/m3).

Minister Speakman’s proposed standards were much less strict than those considered in the variation impact statement, prepared by his very own NSW government on behalf of all states and territories.

Unfortunately, Mr Speakman’s proposal gained enough support to be adopted, but not without several dissenting states. Victorian minister Lisa Neville promised that her state would commit to stricter standards and the Australian Capital Territory joined her. South Australia may too, though we’ve heard no detail as yet.

Commonwealth Environment Minister Greg Hunt who pledged ‘clean air is a signature objective of my watch’ was entirely silent on the matter of the new standards.

This represents a positive outcome from an otherwise bland meeting – one which would not have happened without the efforts of citizens from all over Australia who contacted politicians to make it clear that clean air matters.

Since the ministers’ meeting, the Clean Air team has been busy. Over New Year, EJA analysed the 2015 air pollution monitoring data and identified a pattern of non-compliance with the new national standards.

We planned to examine air pollution in other Australian states, but couldn’t. It’s simply not possible to obtain data from monitoring stations operated by the EPAs in states other than New South Wales – well, not without lengthy correspondence with the relevant public servants. We are keenly awaiting 2015 data for Queensland and Victoria.

What do the new air pollution standards mean? How will they change things?

We have written to Australia’s environment ministers, urging them to fully implement the new standards. That requires each state to:

  1. Revise the pollution licences issued to all polluters that emit significant amount of particle pollution. That includes all Australia’s coal mines, the country’s largest single source of PM10, and coal-fired power stations. Additional pollution controls will be necessary.
  2. Monitor air pollution in communities exposed to high levels of particle pollution. In some coal-mining regions there is little or no monitoring. Central Queensland, for instance, has 15 of Australia’s most polluting coal mines but no EPA monitoring.
  3. Make air pollution monitoring day readily available online. EPA websites in Queensland and Victoria promise data but don’t actually provide it.
  4. Ensure compliance with the new standards. Wherever particle concentrations exceed the standards, regulators should be stepping in to prosecute and to refuse additional pollution sources such as new mines.

These four measures are fair and reasonable.

Independent monitoring and public reporting of air pollution monitoring is supported by the CFMEU, where several coal miners are suffering Black Lung Disease. However, to date, the Queensland Government is ruling out any expansion of their monitoring network. Why?

Relying on industry to self-monitor and self-regulate just doesn’t work. In the coalfields of Central Queensland, Victoria’s Latrobe Valley and parts of New South Wales, coal mining companies monitor air pollution but refuse to report the data without a struggle. It’s encouraging that the NSW EPA now shares some data from industry monitoring in the Naomi region but they refuse to integrate the data with their excellent state-wide portal.

Community members have the right to know what we’re breathing!

So our work is cut out for us in 2016. We’ll be working closely with communities suffering from air pollution around Australia towards the goal of safe, clean air for all Australians.  



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