Coal mining and coal-fired power stations have significantly increased emissions, new figures show

AUSTRALIAN governments are responsible for a “total failure” to control air pollution and Hunter residents are paying a high price with their health, say groups after release of National Pollutant Inventory figures.

Environmental Justice Australia said Bayswater coal-fired power station outside Muswellbrook was one of the worst air quality offenders, with inventory figures showing a 770 per cent increase in coarse particle PM10 pollution over the past five years.

The NPI disclosures by companies showed that Bayswater relied on pollution control devices dating from 1986.

Doctors for the Environment ranked Bayswater and nearby Liddell power stations as two of the highest priority power stations to close because of health impacts on communities, in a recent submission to a government inquiry into the closure of Australia’s coal-fired power stations.

Toxic emissions from the coal industry’s mines, power stations and export terminals dominate this year’s annual National Pollutant Inventory report, with many of Australia’s largest polluters reporting emission hikes.

Figures supplied by Hunter coal mines showed significant PM10 coarse particle emission increases, with Bulga mine showing the highest increase of 32 per cent over the previous year’s figures, followed by Wambo (23 per cent), Wilpinjong (19 per cent),  Mt Thorley Warkworth (12 per cent) and Coal and Allied’s Hunter Valley Operations (11 per cent).

Environmental Justice Australia, along with community, environmental and health organisations, is calling for the Federal Government to take a stronger role in emissions control, and has accused state regulators including the NSW Environment Protection Authority of a “total failure” to control toxic pollution.

“The EPA doesn’t even bother to analyse this data,” EJA research Dr James Whelan said.

“The health damage caused by air pollution costs Australians between $11 billion and $24.3 billion per year, yet governments continue to allow polluters to poison communities.

“The latest NPI data reveals the total failure of Australian governments to control air pollution and highlights the need for much stronger pollution controls and regulation.”

Electricity generation remains the single largest contributor to deadly fine particle pollution, which accounts for more than 3000 premature deaths each year. 

The health damage caused by air pollution costs Australians between $11 billion and $24.3 billion per year, yet governments continue to allow polluters to poison communities.

Environmental Justice Australia researcher Dr James Whelan

The nation’s 274 generators reported emitting a staggering 8.263 million kg of PM2.5 fine particle emissions, or 29 per cent of the national total. 

Coal mining is Australia’s second largest source of coarse particle PM10 pollution, accounting for 393 million kg of pollution, or 41 per cent of the nation’s total. 

Coal mines are also the third most significant source of fine particle pollution, emitting almost 5.5 million kg of PM2.5 during the past year.

“Particle pollution from coal mines has trebled over a decade, defying state government pollution controls,” Dr Whelan said. 

“Despite the NSW Government promising its Dust Stop program would ensure ‘international best practice’ control of dangerous particle pollution, coal dust emissions continue to increase.”

Coarse particle PM10 emissions from Newcastle’s three coal terminals increased by 25 per cent in the past year. 

Doctors for the Environment secretary Dr David Shearman said coarse and fine particles acted as irritants and caused inflammation in the lungs leading to asthma, chronic lung disease, and restricted lung growth in children. Fine particle PM2.5 emissions are associated with lung cancer and are also absorbed through the lungs into the blood stream to cause angina, heart attacks and strokes.

Children are at particular risk from air pollution because they breathe more for their body weight than adults, Dr Shearman said.

“In the Hunter Region of New South Wales there are many open cut coal mines and four active coal-fired power stations. The surrounding population has a higher incidence of the above diseases and has levels of ill health and mortality not experienced elsewhere,” he said. 

“For the reasons above, the phased closure of power stations is urgent, and should occur over the next decade. Ideally, the order of closure is based on intensity of both carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution, and the rate at which renewable energy is encouraged to replace the plants.

“There are no safe levels of air pollutants.”

Wollar Progress Association secretary Bev Smiles, a strong critic of nearby Wilpinjong coal mine which supplies coal to Bayswater and Liddell power stations, said EPA testing had found traces of coal dust inside people’s homes.  

“The Environment Protection Agency tested dust and tank water from houses and public buildings in the village of Wollar last year,” Ms Smiles said.

“Traces of coal dust were found inside peoples’ homes and the village hall, while drinking water had traces of heavy metals and salts. The people of the Wollar district should not have to live with coal in their houses and drinking water.

“These fine dust particles can enter the blood stream and lungs and cause a large range of major health impacts. The people of the Wollar district are being exposed to an unhealthy environment because of poor regulation of the mining industry.”

In 2015 Peabody Energy disputed a National Pollutant Inventory ranking of its Wilpinjong mine as the third largest emitter of fine dust particles in a survey of 105 coal mines.

Peabody said an error made in the company’s initial calculation submitted to the NPI “significantly overstated” the figures.

The Newcastle Herald contacted AGL for comment.