Call for pollution study

Anne Simmons

The author of a report into the possible health effects of coal-fired power generation in NSW wants Victorian pollution standards upgraded.

GP and University of Newcastle public health lecturer Ben Ewald said no recent research had quantified the health effects of air pollution from coal-fired power generation in Victoria.

The November 2018 report commissioned by Environmental Justice Australia found correlations between exposure to fine particle pollution from NSW coal-fired power generation and premature death, type 2 diabetes and low birth weights.

However, the report has drawn criticism, including from one Latrobe Valley generator which said the report applied findings from international studies to NSW.

The report recommended the health impacts of electricity generation in other states should be investigated.

“Victorian decision-makers should be upgrading pollution standards now,” Dr Ewald said.

“But if they need more evidence, they should be conducting the research now to accurately demonstrate the health burden in Victoria so the population exposure doesn’t go on for too many more years.”

Environment Protection Authority Victoria has an ongoing licence review into Gippsland’s three brown coal-fired power stations and monitors air quality at Moe, Churchill, Morwell and Traralgon.

EJA, which is a not-for-profit legal practice, has made a submission to the licence review and is pushing for specific pollution control measures to be installed in Latrobe Valley power plants.

It is seeking fabric bag filters to replace the existing electrostatic precipitators all Latrobe Valley power stations use, EJA lawyer Bronya Lipski said.

“Australia is one of the very, very few western countries or countries in general that does not require best available pollution controls,” Ms Lipski said.

Since the Latrobe Valley is a health innovation zone, decision-makers needed to look through the lens of people’s health in the Valley is not as good as it should be, Ms Lipski said.

NSW power stations have fabric filters but Victorian plants do not, Dr Ewald said.

Federation University Carbon Technology Research Centre lead Associate Professor Vince Verheyen said the most recent research into the airshed in the Latrobe Valley was when Loy Yang was being built in the 1980s.

However, he said exposure to bushfire smoke and traffic pollution from Melbourne’s urban sprawl under a north-westerly wind would be of more concern than emissions from local power stations.

“The coal-fired emissions don’t end up in the Latrobe Valley because the way the stacks are designed. It has to be very unusual atmospheric conditions [inversion events] for us to have the plume touch the ground here,” Professor Verheyen said.

In an inversion event, a stable layer in the atmosphere acts as a lid on the air and traps smoke and air underneath it.

Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Steven McGibbony said these events were not uncommon and formed under similar conditions as fog, being clear skies, light winds and cool nights.

An EnergyAustralia spokesperson says the company “strongly reject the implication that our operations pose unacceptable risks to human health”.

“Electrostatic precipitators are currently installed at Yallourn and considered best practice for capturing emissions from brown coal,” the spokesperson said.

“This isn’t the first time the author [Dr Ewald] has made claims about emissions in the Latrobe Valley; local doctors and the Victorian government have both found fault with previous reports.”

AGL Loy Yang general manager Nigel Browne said AGL proactively invested to improve emissions monitoring and reporting standards and the efficiency and reliability of the plant.