Greens Clean Air Bill Calls for Strict Emissions Restrictions

Today Abigail introduced the Greens' new Clean Air Bill, which will protect the health of our communities by setting stricter limits on toxic emissions and mandating the installation of emission control equipment that has been standard across the United States, Europe and China for many years. 

The Greens' Protection of the Environment Operations Amendment (Clean Air) Bill 2021 will effectively protect our communities from the toxic air pollution that coal-fired power stations produce, ensuring that everyone is afforded the fundamental human right to breathe clean air. 

 

Abigail said: 

I move that this bill be now read a second time.

No matter who we are or where we live, we all have a fundamental right to breathe clean air. From the Central Coast and the Hunter, to Lithgow, Sydney and beyond, that right should be afforded to each and every community across our State. But right now the five remaining coal-fired power stations in New South Wales are exposing our communities to dangerous levels of toxic emissions. For too long these multimillion dollar businesses have profited, refusing to pay for new emission control technology while forcing communities to pay the price with higher rates of serious illnesses like heart disease, lung cancer and asthma. And it is not just people living nearby to the power stations who are at risk. Some of these toxic emissions travel over 200 kilometres, across Sydney and throughout New South Wales. That is why The Greens are introducing this bill. It is a simple bill that has a very clear intention: to protect people's health by ensuring that the remaining coal-fired power stations in New South Wales are made to clean up their act.

The bill does this by setting stricter limits on toxic emissions and effectively mandating the installation of emission control technology that has long been standard across the United States, Europe and China. I thank those who have made themselves and their expertise readily available to my team and I in the creation of this bill, particularly Max Smith of Environmental Justice Australia and Brad Smith of the Nature Conservation Council, as well as James Whelan, previously of the EJA, who first alerted me to the seriousness of this issue years ago. I also acknowledge the work of my colleague Cate Faehrmann, who introduced a prior iteration of this bill in 2018.

Air pollution from coal-fired power stations in Australia is a long‑overlooked and very serious issue. We have known of the grave health impacts of particle emissions like these for decades. The World Health Organization, for example, has long advised that there is no safe level of particle emissions with a diameter of 10 microns or less—so-called PM10 pollutants. The body of evidence showing the link between the particular pollutants that this bill aims to restrict and the very serious health impacts such as stroke, heart attack, angina and cancer, as well as asthma and other respiratory illnesses, is overwhelming. These pollutants can lead to chronic lung disease, premature death and restricted growth in children. Children and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to air pollution.

University of Newcastle epidemiologist Dr Ben Ewald conducted an analysis in 2018 that found correlations between poor air quality and premature death, low birth weight and type 2 diabetes. Dr Ewald said that if the findings were applied to a New South Wales setting, it is reasonable to conclude that fine particle air pollution contributes to 279 premature deaths, 233 babies born at low birth weight and 269 new cases of diabetes every year. Dr Ewald's data is based on the reported air pollution levels from monitoring stations. However, New South Wales has a notoriously poor air pollution monitoring regime, having only recently agreed to install an independent ambient air pollution monitoring station at Lake Macquarie. Most pollutants are not required to be monitored, or are only infrequently monitored at the power station stacks. As reported by EJA in its 2017 report "Toxic and terminal":

Coal-fired power stations emit more than 30 toxic substances that have serious impacts on the communities that live near them including heart attack, stroke, asthma, lung cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, choking and coughing, headache, general discomfort and anxiety, wheezing, colds, flu and bronchitis, coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness and nausea.

Where power stations exist, they are usually the main source of air pollution. In New South Wales we have five active coal-fired power stations: Eraring and Vales Point at the northern end of the Central Coast, on Lake Macquarie; Mount Piper near Lithgow; and Bayswater and Liddell—slated for closure next year—in the Hunter. In the Hunter Valley, EJA reports that 30 to 40 per cent of fine particle pollution is caused by power stations. People who live within 50 kilometres of coal-fired power stations face a risk of premature death as much as three to four times that of people living further away. The communities who live with these major polluters know that they are bearing the costs while private companies profit. They know that they are being let down by this Government and by the existing regulations. Central Coast resident and community disability advocate Gary Blaschke, OAM, has been calling for government action for years. At the Public Works Committee inquiry into coal ash he said:

… we are human beings, we are people who live in the area and, yes, if pollution was purple and we could actually see it, we would all be up in arms. 

Vales Point ... recently got fined for not maintaining what they call its socks, the filters in the actual stacks themselves. So … we have got private enterprise ignoring something for over 12 months, knowing full well that fine particles are getting out in the air, when we have got residential areas surrounding this particular power station …

He continued:

I believe a lot of people are sweeping the issue under the carpet and that this needs to be exposed. At least say to both the Government and the operators that they have a responsibility, which they may not have when they first started ...

But the thing that upsets me the most is that, especially with Sunset International—who trades as Delta—they bought the whole power plant and its lands and its ash dams for $1 million. They have only owned it for a few years and it was recently valued at $140 million. This is a private company that is making millions and millions of dollars out of effectively contaminating the local area. They are not to fully blame; the Government is to blame because we did not do something about this years ago.

This is a public health issue. Speaking to EJA for the release of its People's Clean Air Action Plan in February, Dr Bob Vickers, a GP in Singleton near the Liddell Power Station, said:

I see patients presenting with serious health issues caused by air pollution from nearby coal-fired power stations, particularly kids with asthma, adults with respiratory diseases and heart disease, and pregnancy complications. I'm sick and tired of seeing patients with preventable diseases caused by toxic air pollution while the calls for governments and power companies to act are continually ignored. Improving the health of people living near coal-fired power stations … should be a priority. I am extremely frustrated to see how our governments took immediate action regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, yet they continue to do nothing on the public health threat of toxic air pollution that kills almost 5,000 Australians every year. Our governments could so easily reduce pollution from coal-fired power stations and coal mines but instead they let these companies make record profits while we breathe in toxic air.

Again via the EJA, Hunter resident Bev Smiles from the Hunter Communities Network has detailed the environmental costs as follows:

There has been community concern about acid rain from the power stations, right out as far as Bunnan. There was a huge dieback event there a number of years ago where a whole lot of really big, mature yellow box trees died off. A lot of the local farmers believe pollution from the coal‑fired power stations was one of the causes of that. The main fencing supplier in this region—Waratah—has developed a stronger wire to use on the top wire of fences because of the rapid deterioration of the steel in the fences in the Upper Hunter.

If it's doing that to fencing wire, what's it doing to the lungs of children who breathe it in every day? Here in the Hunter Valley we have one of the highest incidences of asthma in Australia. We believe that is because of the pollution from coalmines and the combustion of coal in this region.

I ask honourable members here how would they feel if their children were forced to breathe air that can eat through steel fencing wire? Do they think that is acceptable? Finally, I share the words of Charmian Eckersley, a resident of Eraring, detailing the daily actions that she told Environmental Justice Australia [EJA] she takes to live with the effects of Eraring's air pollution. She stated:

In the last four or five years I've noticed more fallout of particulate matter on the back veranda ... I wouldn't put out clothes without wiping the grime off the clotheshorse first. …

I consciously shut doors and windows quite a lot, thinking to keep out the particles. My partner has got asthma. Now that I've been thinking about it a bit, it's probably not the best place for him to be living …

… People should be able to know, for instance, today is a really bad day for air pollution, today you should shut your windows, go somewhere else for the day, it's not a good day to be outside doing the gardening. Best to be inside.

It's basic, it's fair, it's really what our government needs to do for its people is look after their health.

 

Sydney is not immune to the toxic impacts of air pollution from coal-fired power stations. Most of the sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and particle pollutants in Sydney's air comes from power stations in the Hunter and Central Coast. Dr Ben Ewald's report into the health effects of coal-fired power stations demonstrated that pollution from coal-fired power stations caused 153 premature deaths each year in Sydney because of weather conditions and the pooling effect in the Sydney Basin. Let me be very clear: The costs of air pollution and these dreadful health impacts, including diabetes, stroke, cancer, low birth weight and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, are all preventable by phasing out coal-fired power. But we cannot just sit around waiting for that to happen while people are getting sicker and sicker. We need better regulation in the interim. That is why The Greens are introducing the bill.

The bill aims to improve air quality in New South Wales by standardising allowable concentrations of emissions of air pollutants from the remaining coal-fired power stations in New South Wales. It sets allowable limits that must not be exceeded for nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, sulphur dioxide, solid particles and mercury. Currently under the Act the levels of allowable emissions for power stations are set by regulation and where no regulation exists they are set by licence. Regulations further divide different plants into different groups based on their date of commissioning. The result is that we have inconsistent standards for each of the coal-fired power stations in New South Wales. Under these regulations, Vales Point, for example, is allowed to produce 1,000 micrograms of the neurotoxin mercury per cubic metre, which is five times the 200 micrograms per cubic metre allowed from Eraring. The bill will correct these anomalies. All coal-fired power stations in New South Wales will be required to remain within consistent emission controls.

The bill amends section 128 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 by the insertion of a new clause which states that the occupier of a coal-fired power station must not carry on any activity or operate any plant in the power station that causes or permits the emission of an air impurity in excess of the amount specified. For nitrogen dioxide or nitric acid, or both, that concentration as a nitrogen dioxide equivalent is 200 milligrams per cubic metre. Oxides of nitrogen are present in coal-fired power station emissions as either nitrogen dioxide or nitrous oxide. Nitrogen oxides have numerous impacts on human health, including on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and they exacerbate symptoms of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and other respiratory diseases. Currently, allowable levels of nitrogen dioxide from these power stations are between 1,100 and 1,500 milligrams per cubic metre, which is five to 7½ times higher than permissible levels in the European Union and China. For sulphur dioxide the concentration limit prescribed in the bill is 200 milligrams per cubic metre.

Sulphur dioxide is emitted during the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. Exposure to sulphur dioxide gas leads to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, bronchitis, stroke, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Current allowable emissions for sulphur dioxide of 1,716 milligrams per cubic metre are more than four times higher than allowable levels in the European Union and China. For total solid particles the concentration limit under the bill is 20 milligrams per cubic metre. Total solid particles is a measurement of particulate matter—in this instance fine particulates, known as particulate matter [PM] 2.5, and coarse particulates, known as PM10. These particulates occur at every stage of the coalmining, transport, handling and power generation process, and include the tiny particles of soot, fly-ash, dust and heavy metals that are emitted by coal-fired power stations.

Because many of them are extremely small they can be inhaled deep into the lungs, where they act as an irritant or a carcinogen. In 2010 the United States Environmental Protection Agency stated a causal link with early death, heart disease, stroke and congestive heart failure. It further linked particle pollution from coal-fired power stations with cancer, respiratory inflammation, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as developmental and reproductive harms. Studies published in the prestigious medical journalThe Lancet link PM2.5 pollution with diabetes. Particulate matter limits in New South Wales vary from 50 to 100 milligrams per cubic metre—more than three times the allowable limit in China.

Finally, for mercury the bill prescribes a concentration limit of 1.5 micrograms per cubic metre. Mercury is a neurotoxin. Only very low doses are required to cause serious health problems, including risks to cognitive and neurological development of children. Mercury is a persistent, long-term environmental pollutant and burning coal is one of the major sources of mercury pollution globally. The World Health Organization has listed it as one of the top 10 chemicals of major public health concern. It is not normally breathed in; it is normally ingested, especially via seafood or by digging in contaminated dirt and then touching your mouth, as children do. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of mercury because their brains are still developing.

In New South Wales Vales Point Power Station is currently allowed to emit 1,000 micrograms of mercury per cubic metre—a staggering 33 times higher than the allowable limit in China. It is unconscionable for the New South Wales Liberal-Nationals Government to fail to act to protect our community from the health burden of these emissions and refuse to require power station operators to clean up their act. These dangerous emissions could easily be reduced by up to 85 per cent if New South Wales coal-fired power stations adopted emission control technologies which have been standard inclusions internationally for 50 years. Controls can occur at pre‑, in‑ or post‑combustion stages.

Coal with lower sulphur content can be used and coal can be pre-crushed, combustion temperatures varied and solvents injected into the flame during combustion. Post‑combustion technologies can dramatically reduce the pollution that comes out of combustion stacks. The use of sulphur oxide [SOx] or wet scrubbers, properly known as flue gas desulphurisation, would remove 99 per cent of sulphur pollution. Selective catalytic reduction would significantly reduce oxides of nitrogen, and activated carbon injection would remove mercury.

At this point none of the five power stations in New South Wales use any of these methods because we simply do not require them to regulate their toxic pollution to this extent. New South Wales power stations do use fabric filters to reduce particulate pollution, but this is clearly not working as well as it should, given the high particulate levels still affecting New South Wales residents. According to the industry's own figures, during the 2020 financial year coal-fired power stations at Lithgow, on the Central Coast and in the Hunter Valley released more than 268,000 tonnes of toxic air pollution, including 102,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides; 153,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide; 1,312 tonnes of coarse particles, or PM10; and 358 tonnes of fine particles, or PM2.5.

Again, pollution reduction technologies that have been available for many years and that are frequently used overseas could significantly reduce power station emissions in New South Wales, but they are not being used. These pollution control measures could save lives and safeguard the health of affected communities, yet the Government and the Environment Protection Authority [EPA] have not made New South Wales coal-fired power stations install them.

Environmental Justice Australia's Director of Advocacy and Research Nicola Rivers publicly stated in 2018 that the EPA had effectively given coal-fired power stations a licence to harm our communities. The International Energy Agency recently noted that in those countries where air pollution is being controlled, strong government regulation is the primary reason. The United States of America is a good example. The United States Environmental Protection Agency introduced limits in 1990 through the Clean Air Act, with decreasing levels of allowable pollutants in place from 1995 to 1999. The EPA is required to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards to control pollutants considered harmful to public health or the environment—so-called criteria pollutants. Of the 328,720 megawatts of coal-fired capacity reporting their control technologies to the Energy Information Administration in 2005, 48 per cent have cooling towers, 31 per cent have flue gas desulphurisation equipment—known as scrubbers—and 100 per cent have particulate collectors.

Germany uses a multi‑pronged approach to controlling air pollution, including setting strict emissions limits and mandating upgrades of all facilities to the best available technology through its Technical Instructions of Air Quality Control, known as the TA Luft. This contains provisions to protect citizens from unacceptably high pollutant emissions from installations, as well as requirements to prevent adverse effects on the environment. All Germany's black or hard coal burning power stations are fitted with catalytic equipment to reduce nitrous oxide emissions—all of them. Combined with tight regulations to make sure this equipment is used at its greatest capacity, air pollution levels can be cut in half. This technology is available now and could be installed tomorrow on all five remaining coal-fired power stations in New South Wales if there was a legislative requirement and a financial incentive to stop polluting.

 

Let us take a closer look at our power stations. Vales Point, Australia's most urban power station, was sold by the New South Wales Liberal‑Nationals Government in 2015 for $1 million to Liberal Party donor Trevor St Baker. It was valued shortly after at $750 million. Taxpayers are funding a multimillion dollar upgrade to the aging power station, without specific air pollution controls. EJA lawyers say that Vales Point already emits pollutant concentrations that dramatically exceed limits set by comparable countries like the USA and China due to inadequate pollution controls. Vales Point also enjoys an exemption from the stricter oxides of nitrogen standards applicable to other New South Wales coal burners, seemingly inexplicably. The national pollution inventory data shows that Vales Point Power Station emitted more than 38,000 tonnes of toxic air pollutants including 18,000 tonnes of oxides of nitrogen, 20,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 86 tonnes of large particles and 31 tonnes of small particles. The EPA has granted Vales Point two five-year exemptions from the emissions standard and is currently considering the company's application to continue over‑polluting for another five years.

Eraring is Australia's largest coal-fired power station. Both the power plant and its massive coal ash dam are located in a residential area between Lake Macquarie and the Central Coast. Local communities already experience rates of respiratory disease much higher than the State average. Eraring has a fabric filter system installed on each of its generating units capable of removing 99.99 per cent of particulates and modified low NOx burners which help to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 40 per cent. It does not, however, have wet scrubbers for sulfur dioxide [SO2] removal or selective catalytic reduction for nitrogen oxides [Nox] reduction. Eraring's licence conditions set stricter stack limits than other coal-fired power stations in New South Wales for cadmium, mercury and particle pollution. But Eraring's emission limits are less strict than licence limits in China. Its reportable SO2 and NOx limits far exceed all international limits, with its NOx limit being more than five times above the limits in the European Union and China.

There is no air pollution monitoring within 30 kilometres of the Eraring and Vales Point power stations, so it is impossible to know what concentrations of toxic pollution nearby communities live with. The New South Wales EPA justifies its refusal to establish monitoring stations near Eraring and Vales Point power stations by referring to a single short-term study several years ago that suggested pollution concentrations are generally less than the national standards. Eraring's neighbours regularly complain about local air pollution impacts. In September 2016, Eraring's massive ash dam dried out and coal ash blew over residents in Wangi and other nearby suburbs. It was only due to scores of complaints that the New South Wales EPA investigated. Origin was fined a paltry $15,000. Former CEO of the NSW Conservation Council Kate Smolski said at the time that the fine "does nothing" as a deterrent and "tougher fines and stronger rules are needed". The Greens agree.

But Eraring and Vales Point are minnows in the pollution stakes compared with Bayswater. Its owner, AGL, has been described as Australia's single largest polluter due to the total toxic emissions from its fleet of coal and gas generators and its growing carbon dioxide [CO2] emissions. Communities as far away as Newcastle and Sydney are impacted by toxic emissions from Bayswater. The annual average concentration of toxic fine particle pollution in nearby Muswellbrook has exceeded the national standard every year since the Upper Hunter Air Quality Monitoring Network began monitoring PM2.5 in 2010. Muswellbrook also experiences elevated concentrations of sulphur dioxide. In the past, Bayswater management instructed its operators to blend coal in order to produce a lower estimate of stack emissions than is likely to be representative of annual emissions. Coal with higher sulphur content was burnt in units that were not being monitored. Bayswater's emissions limits are much less strict than those required in the European Union, China and the United States. The licence limits set for emissions of mercury are 33 times higher than those set in China and the EU.

Australia's oldest running power station, Liddell, also punches above its weight in the emissions stakes. Also owned by AGL and due to close in 2022—not before time—it produces two‑thirds as much power as Bayswater and Eraring but about the same toxic emissions of nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide and fine particle pollution. It has the highest sulphur dioxide emissions of any power station in Australia and yet has never installed any interventions to reduce these emissions, despite the known health impacts. Poor regulation, lax licensing conditions, regulatory failure and no publicly available monitoring data have meant that AGL has had no need to curb its pollution. It is not like it cannot afford it—AGL's 2020 profit was over $1 billion—it is just that we did not make them. And this theme continues.

Mount Piper, known best for its water pollution, has emissions limits which meet the European Union limits for particle pollution but far exceed the EU and China limits for nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide and mercury. Because the EPA conducts no monitoring of Mount Piper's emissions, or in nearby towns like Lithgow and Portland, Mount Piper's owner, Sunset Power, is allowed to self-report. These reports have been repeatedly demonstrated not to be credible. Based on the energy Mount Piper generates, emissions are likely to be 10 to 20 times higher than reported.

 

Profit is chosen over public health time and time again, and we are paying dearly. In the Hunter Valley, health care costs from damage caused by coal-fired power stations was estimated in 2015 by the Climate and Health Alliance to be around $600 million per annum. The annual health costs of air pollution from coal‑fired power stations across Australia has been estimated at about $2.6 billion a year. Communities and governments are meeting these costs while power companies profit. In New South Wales, our load‑based licensing fee system charges a fee to pollute. But that fee does not even come close to meeting the health costs of the damage these coal-fired power stations cause. Doctors for the Environment Australia, as reported in "Toxic and terminal", estimates that in order to cover the health care costs power stations would need to pay licence fees nearly 50 times their current levels. Current estimates of the costs of installation of best practice technologies used in Europe and China, which I have detailed, would be covered by less than one year of the estimated Hunter Valley health care costs. Over a 10‑year period, the sum paid out by power companies would be a fraction of the billions of dollars in costs carried by communities and the health budget. So this bill, aside from being a moral obligation, would also make sound economic sense.

We know that air pollution is a major health problem, and we know how to drastically reduce air pollution. So why does the Liberal‑Nationals Government fail to act? I asked the Minister for Energy and Environment about air pollution during budget estimates hearings. He stated that he was "very aware of the impact" that particulate pollution "can have on human health" and that it was of "great concern." Yet, despite that acknowledgment from Minister Kean, the draft NSW Clean Air Strategy released on 18 March 2021 is woefully inadequate. No‑one is impressed by it. EJA lawyers, who have worked tirelessly to highlight the health impacts of coal-fired stations and to recommend science‑based solutions, have been particularly scathing. They say:

The NSW Government's draft Clean Air Strategy does nothing to tackle the State's largest source of pollution—coal-fired power stations. It could easily have mandated that power stations install basic pollution controls required in most other regions, including the United States, European Union, and China, and cut toxic pollutants by more than 85 per cent.

It is dumbfounding that the Government has spent five years developing a "strategy" to reduce pollution and protect community health that merely maintains the status quo. In the five years that the community has waited for this strategy, coal-fired power stations in New South Wales have caused approximately 2,385 premature deaths, 37,910 asthma symptoms experienced by children and young adults and 2,250 babies to be born with low birth weight.

We have the capacity to fix this through this bill. The Minister stated that he wanted to see high standards applied to New South Wales power stations and to see those standards enforced by the Environment Protection Authority. I agree. What we currently lack in New South Wales are those high standards, and so I present to members a bill that provides them. It provides for technologically feasible reductions that are readily affordable for private power companies making huge profits, with the costs borne by polluters, not the community, and that are achievable now. All that is required is political will. Clean air is a fundamental human right. Community expectation is, rightfully, that everyone, no matter where they live, deserves to breathe clean air. This bill will ensure just that. I commend the bill to the House.

 

The full transcript of Abigail's speech can be found in Hansard here.

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