Inquiry Into Clean Air: Experts Agree Installing Air Pollution Technology Would Save Lives

Today in committee hearings for the inquiry into clean air, Abigail questioned experts in the industry about the primary benefit of installing pollution filtering technology — it would save hundreds of human lives... 

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: Dr Ewald, just to summarise it—if this bill was to be enacted and the coal-fired power stations in New South Wales were required to install this pollution filtering technology, how many lives do you think would be saved every year?

Dr EWALD (Member, Doctors for the Environment Australia): That is a tricky question because we do not know the total reduction of pollution that would occur compared to what is allowed now. These standards are for the maximum allowable chimney stack concentration. How that would relate to a change in exposure in ambient air out where people live, that is a complex relationship. When I estimated the mortality burden from power stations in New South Wales, I got a much larger number than Richard Broome did—I got about 280 deaths per year. That was based on particle characterisation work done by David Cohen from Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation [ANSTO]. There are different ways of estimating this. The health impact assessment part of it—from how much air pollution to how many deaths—that is a fairly standard method, and I think we would agree on that. The difference is in the model exposure to the air—how much air pollution people are exposed to. So from my figure of about 280, I think meeting the standards proposed in the bill would get rid of about three-quarters of that, but that is an approximation. Likewise, if we take Richard Broome's estimate of 45 deaths per year, then three-quarters of those would be reduced by enforcing these new limits in power stations.

Of course, not all power stations are equal because it is dependent on wind directions. The summer conditions that favour sulphate particle production are associated with more likely north-easterly winds, and that blows the pollution from the Central Coast power stations down to Sydney where large numbers of people are exposed. So the Central Coast power stations will have a larger health burden than, say, Mt Piper around Lithgow or the Upper Hunter power stations that are much further away. It has not been exactly quantified how many deaths per terawatt hour of production each power station produces, but I think that the burden is greater from the power stations that are upwind of Sydney and that have a large surrounding population. Many more people live near the Central Coast power stations than they do near the Lithgow power stations or the Bayswater [inaudible] power stations.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: I appreciate that you are a researcher and very precise, and I guess I am trying to make a more general point. Do you think then it would be fair to say if the power stations installed the technology that would be required or—let's put it another way—if they were to comply with the limits proposed in this bill, that we would be likely to save at least 200 lives a year across the State?

Dr EWALD: That is a reasonable guess based on my estimate of mortality, but I think that it is as likely that Richard Broome's estimate of mortality is also correct, so it might be two-thirds of that number. 

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: What was his mortality estimate?

Dr EWALD: It might be 200 less deaths based on my numbers or 30 less deaths based on Richard Broome's numbers. 

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: Still a lot of lives either way. Do you perhaps have an idea of the reduction in the numbers of children presenting with asthma as a result of those pollution emissions technologies being installed?

Dr EWALD: If the NO2 scrubbers can eliminate 90 per cent of the NO2 releases, then we would get about that same reduction in the local numbers of children whose asthma can be attributed to that exposure. So for Lake Macquarie, it would probably be 300 less children with asthma if we could get those NO2 scrubbers installed. That is in that LGA and an equal number from Central Coast LGA.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: Then statewide?

Dr EWALD: I have not done the numbers statewide. I have published an analysis of this and I can send that to you.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: I think that is incredibly useful because it gives us who are not scientists a bit of an idea of exactly what the impact is at the moment of not requiring these power stations to install this technology. I think that is incredibly useful information. 


Abigail went on to question just how effective current penalties for pollutors are... 

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: One of my colleagues was asking before about the difference between the load-based licence regime and what is being proposed in this bill. They are the same, I guess, only insofar as the load-based levies are sufficient to incentivise the coal-fired power station to actually install the filters. Is that correct? Is that your understanding?

Dr EWALD: Yes. The current load-based licensing system has ineffective fees, so it does not work; it does not achieve its stated goal. Either setting a numerical value that should not be exceeded, which is what your bill does, or applying a fee that is adequate to alter production practices—they are two ways to get to the same goal.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: If, however, these coal-fired power stations were to look and say, "At least one of our stations might close within a short period of time," they could choose instead to just keep polluting at the high levels and paying the higher costs, could they not?

Dr EWALD: Yes. Under the current load-based licensing, the size of the fee is not significant. They will pay the fee and keep polluting, yes. The numbers are all wrong and it would be a substantial increase, not just a little bit—50 times greater.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: I think they would probably prefer to have the bill.

Dr EWALD: It is complicated. Liddell, obviously, is going to close next year. It would not make sense to be putting pollution controls on Liddell but other power stations that are going to keep going, if they are going to keep going for five or 10 years, then that is still a substantial health burden that should be avoided.


Abigail then asked what community members are to do if they suffer the effects of air pollution from coal-fired power stations...

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: From a health perspective, if we knew, for instance, that there was a particularly high risk of air pollution—so, say here where I am on the Central Coast, if we knew that today there was particularly bad coal-fired power station pollution overhead for whatever reason, what could we do or what action would we take to protect ourselves and try and stop the worst of the impacts?

Dr BROOME: So, typically, there is already an air quality information system and an alert system, that I suspect you are aware of? Yes. Each day DPIE predict what air pollution is going to be in the coming days and they use that to alert people if it is likely tobe poor. Generally speaking, in New South Wales, the issues that lead to poor air quality are bushfires or hazard reduction burns or, in winter as well, just inversion layers—so when people are lighting up their wood heaters and it is cold and you get an inversion layer so that the smoke settles. So, typically, those are the things that cause high air pollution—or dust storms, is the other thing. It is pretty unusual and I have not heard that you get—all these other sources tend to produce air pollution at a fairly constant and consistent way, so they do not tend to lead to high exceedances, high 24-hour averages.

There is that system and so if you are alert to it and you know you are someone who is more sensitive, the idea is it helps you to take action and that action ranges from cutting back on outdoor physical exercise to staying indoors more, depending on the level.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: So if you had chronic asthma and you were potentially being triggered by particular pollutants coming from coal-fired power stations your option, really, is to stay indoors?

Dr BROOME: Yes, and I would always urge you to seek the advice of your doctor to make sure that, if you are having chronic symptoms, you are getting all the treatment that you can to get on top of those. One of the challenges with air pollution science is that it really does not give us a great deal of information about what it means for individuals. A lot of it is done at a very, sort of, broad population scale. So I think part of the messaging is always that people have to know how they respond themselves and if they do find that, for example, on smoky days that they are more sensitive, those people should be more cautious and those people should—again, if you are asthmatic and you know that smoke is a trigger, make sure you are talking to your doctor so that you have got the best plan possible.


The full transcript can be found in Hansard, here.

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