Coal-fired power generators: Polluting, toxic and unregulated

Burning coal to generate electricity is the opposite of ‘clean’. Australia’s power stations are old, inefficient and highly polluting. Even if the entire fleet was replaced with ‘ultra supercritical’ coal technology, emissions would be reduced by just 25%. This won’t happen, for economic reasons (renewables are cheaper).

EJA’s air pollution team are actively engaged in the current debate about Australia’s energy future. Undeniable climate change impacts, the plummeting cost of renewable energy, and a polarised Parliament are forcing Australian governments to pick winners and losers. This will have major implications for the communities most directly impacted by coal-fired power stations.

We are working especially closely with communities where coal-fired power stations are located, in the Latrobe and Hunter valleys, the NSW Central Coast, Lithgow and other places. The power stations in these regions emit millions of kilograms of sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and PM2.5. These and other toxic pollutants can disperse hundreds of kilometres away. The Hunter’s Bayswater, Liddell, Vales Point and Eraring plants, for instance, contribute significantly to concentrations of oxides of nitrogen (52%) and sulphur dioxide (87%) in metropolitan Sydney, causing a range of respiratory illnesses.

Earlier this month, our team visited the Vales Point power station where we witnessed a major pollution incident. Other power stations use enclosed conveyor belts to feed coal to furnaces. At Vales Point, thousands of tonnes of coal were being dumped outdoors in hot, windy conditions, cloaking nearby residential areas with dangerous particle pollution. We documented one large truck unloading every three minutes. Our pollution complaint to the NSW EPA triggered an official investigation, and a commitment that the trucks will be replaced by conveyors by the end of April. But much more needs to be done.

Vales Point power station

The New South Wales Government has signalled their intention to reduce emissions from electricity generation, but at a snail’s pace. Their ‘Clean Air for NSW Consultation Paper’ released for comment in October, proposed a 12-month investigation of “feasible air pollution control options”.

Many measures that can significantly reduce toxic pollution have been known for years: scrubbers to control SO2, electrostatic precipitators to capture fine particle pollution and reduce NOx emissions, and activated carbon injection to capture mercury are all well-established technologies. But they are not required for, or unable to be fitted in, all Australian power stations.

Licencing arrangements are another way to control pollution. Like other major polluters, coal-fired power stations are licenced to pollute, with various conditions and fees. Doctors for the Environment Australia recommend a national ‘load-based licencing’ scheme to require power stations to pay a fee equivalent to the health impacts they cause. In NSW, that would involve increasing the current licence fees to 49 times the current level.

Pollution control technologies and load-based licencing would have health benefits in polluted communities. Our concern, though, is that power generation will change in a rapid and unplanned way in the next decade, impacting severely on power station communities. The unplanned closure of the Latrobe Valley’s Hazelwood power station is creating anxiety and upheaval in that community. Accordingly, we presented evidence to the Senate Inquiry into Retirement of Australia’s coal-fired power stations, advocating a strong role for the Commonwealth Government in leading and managing this transition to lessen impacts.

Are you impacted by air pollution from power stations? We’d love to hear your views and experiences. During March, we will be holding community workshops in Morwell (23/3) and Muswellbrook (29/3) to hear first-hand from community members. Contact us for details, or tell your story here.


Yours for clean air,

Nicola, James and Bronya (the clean air team). 

p.s. Thank you sincerely to the more than 200 people who made submissions on the NSW Government Clean Air Consultation Paper. Watch this space for updates on the final paper and its recommended actions.

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