Inquiry Into Clean Air: We Must Regulate Pollutants

This week in committee hearings for the inquiry into clean air, Abigail discussed the benefits of installing best practice emission control technology in NSW with experts in the industry. 

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: There is a lot of pollution and there is a lot of pollution we cannot do anything about or that we can but it is going to take a long time. When it comes to the pollution from coalfired power stations, that is pollution we can easily do something about, is it not? Can you explain to us exactly what would be required and what the benefit would be of installing best practice pollution controls. 

Mr WITHEROW (Principal Lawyer, Environmental Justice Australia): As the Committee will hear, there is a large proportion of the pollution in New South Wales, in particular the greater Sydney region, that comes from only five sources, and that is the power stations. The technology exists to remove by far the majority of that pollution in the realm of—depending on the pollutant—90 per cent to 95 per cent of that air pollution, through the use of technologies that exist and have been around for decades and, as you have heard and you will hear again I am sure, have been used in jurisdictions around the world. There are some challenges with installing them, but they are not insurmountable. You will probably hear from the power station operators on that. They will say that they pose a risk to the national electricity market and there will be significant outages and all these sorts of things. But the reality is that these technologies can be installed alongside the power stations while they are operating, and then during scheduled outages they can be stalled—an engineering term for the tie-in period, which is something like six weeks, where they actually tie the pollution controls into the existing power station infrastructure. The result of that would be a relatively small number of emitters, only five, significantly improving the air quality in New South Wales, in particular the Greater Sydney or greater metropolitan region. There is no safe level of air pollution. While air pollution or air quality will never be perfect, it can be improved. Every single improvement represents a saving of the health and disease burden for the New South Wales community.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: As you say, there are five coal-fired power stations at the moment in New South Wales, soon to be four. By taking action at just four locations, we could reduce air pollution that is coming from those coal-fired power stations by between 90 per cent and 95 per cent. What overall impact would that have on the quality of Sydney and Greater Sydney's air quality?

Mr WITHEROW: It is difficult for me to quantify that, but if we know that for example close to half of the oxides of nitrogen and 86 per cent of sulphur dioxides are coming from the power stations, we can say that that is air pollution that will no longer be headed into the Greater Sydney region. It is the fine particle portion which is especially dangerous. Oxides of nitrogen and sulphur dioxide go on to form particles in the atmosphere which then come down into Sydney. They transform from a gas form or a condensable particulate, as it is called, into a solid particle, which then joins the particular burden in the greater New South Wales region. It would make a significant difference to the air quality of New South Wales and, perhaps, more importantly, the health impacts.

Dr SMITH (Campaigns Director, Nature Conservation Council of NSW): Ms Boyd, I might be able to provide a direct answer to that question about how much pollution would be reduced. ou will hear later in the day from some scientists who have worked to quantify that reduction. For example, Dr Richard Broome—who I think is the last witness you will hear from—did a study in 2017 and found that by fitting nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide pollution controls to the power stations that would have a health benefit of $2.5 billion in the Greater Sydney metropolitan area and would reduce premature deaths by around 40 deaths per year. There have been other estimates. A more recent one also done by scientists at the then Office of Environment and Heritage found that coal-fired power station pollution was responsible for
around 19 per cent of the man-made air pollution—that is the fine particle pollution which is most harmful to health—in the Greater Sydney area. That is the sort of reduction that we will see.


Abigail then raised the topic of increasing public awareness around air pollution...

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: Thank you for that. Sometimes when we propose reforms like this the response we get, particularly from industry, is, "This is how we've always done it. This has been our practice for however long." Is it the case that the awareness around the health impacts of air pollution has increased markedly even in the last five years, but also in the last decade? Can you talk about what we know now around air pollution impacts that we just did not know 10 or 20 years ago? I will go to you first, Mr Smith, if you would like.

Dr SMITH: I think it is fair to say that and, certainly, I think the World Health Organisation's guidelines show that. When they released these new guidelines they said the reason that they have tightened their guidelines very significantly is because there is now a vast body of evidence that shows that—as other witnesses have said— there is no safe level of pollution and even at low levels pollution is extremely harmful. They say by meeting the guidelines that they set, millions of lives can be saved every year. Certainly, the awareness in the science has improved dramatically and there have been studies in Australia that have helped to improve our understanding. A large study was done on the impacts of nitrogen pollution on children, which found that even at very low levels, nitrogen dioxide pollution caused more cases of asthma. We have used that research to show that coal-fired power station pollution around the Central Coast and Lake Macquarie region where two coal-fired power stations are sited is responsible for around 650 cases of childhood asthma every year.

Certainly, the science has come a long way, but I think also awareness in the public has changed. We all went through the black summer bushfires, now almost two years ago. We all experienced days—probably for the first time—of breathing hazardous air pollution and we saw hospital admissions skyrocket. We saw thousands of people going to hospital with asthma. Around 445 deaths were attributed to breathing in the smoke from those bushfires. Children were born preterm and underweight. These are all the impacts of air pollution. We see them on those hazardous days. Perhaps the thing that people are less aware of is that those impacts are also happening when we are breathing in lower levels of air pollution.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: Thank you. I guess it is that invisible pollution aspect. At least during the fires we could all see it.

With that increased public awareness and with the increasing body of evidence about the health impacts, what do you make of the Government's latest reiteration of the clean air regulations, which have come out just recently, after 11 years of not being updated? Do you think they reflect the science?

Ms CHICK (Solicitor, Environmental Defenders Office): As Mr Witherow said, we do not believe that the current regulations adequately limit pollution from coal-fired power stations. Similarly, the proposed bill—although it is a significant improvement on what currently exists, we think it still does not go far enough. In other comparable jurisdictions and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] guidelines there is a requirement to use best available technologies or best available techniques to reduce emissions. That requirement is underpinned by guidelines on what best available techniques are and provides guidance as well on the limits that are achievable if those best available techniques are used. We think that in addition to the limits proposed in the bill it would also be useful to provide a mechanism in the bill or in the Act to ensure that as technology improves, emission reductions can continue to take place under the Act.


The full transcript can be found in Hansard, here.

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