Environment report finds that 100s of people are dying premature deaths

Dr Ben Ewald explains the extent of the air pollution problem.Dr Ben Ewald explains the extent of the air pollution problem.

Publicly available air quality monitoring should be conducted at Wyee, a community with an aging coal-fired power station, but with no current air monitoring, according to a new report into the health burden of fine particle pollution from coal-fired power stations.

According to the report, over the remaining 12 years of operational life for Vales Point, it will result in 547 additional deaths, 475 lower birth weight babies, and 709 additional cases of new onset diabetes. In the remaining 12 years of operation for Eraring, it will lead to 1,219 additional expected deaths, 1,058 low birth weight babies, and 1,579 additional cases of new onset diabetes. Local residents will have an opportunity to discuss the findings of the report at a public forum on Thursday, November 29.

“The State Government must act immediately to safeguard community health.”

The report’s author, Dr Ben Ewald, Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and, Dr James Whelan, from Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), will be guest speakers at the meeting, to be held at the Wyee Community Hall from 6:30 to 8:00pm. Mike Campbell from the Community Environment Network (CEN) will also speak at the meeting. EJA recently commissioned the report into the health impacts of air pollution from NSW power stations.

It is the first report of its kind in Australia. The report found that coal-fi red power stations are one of the biggest sources of air pollution in Australia, causing asthma and other respiratory problems, reduced birthweight, diabetes and premature death. It concluded that public health is impacted in communities near power stations and up to 200km away, and that air pollution is poorly controlled in NSW.

Vales Point Power Station, at Mannering Park, is the only one out of the five still operating in NSW that is located within the Central Coast local government area, but the nearby Eraring Power Station, in the Lake Macquarie LGA, would, according to the report, also have detrimental health impacts on the Central Coast community.

“The form of pollution that has the strongest effect on health is fine particles (PM2.5) and one of the major sources of PM2.5 in the Sydney Greater Metropolitan region is burning coal for electricity,” the report said. “Eraring and Vales Point … make the largest contribution to the health burden from power generation, since prevailing weather patterns are most likely to carry pollutants from these sources into the Sydney basin where the largest population resides,” it said.

“The continued operation of all the coalfired generators in NSW imposes a substantial health burden that could be alleviated by imposing stricter licensing conditions for operators that would require post-combustion capture of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx), or by bringing forward closure of plants.”

“It’s shocking to think that based on the current operating life of the fi e power stations, the air pollution they produce will kill 3,429 more people,” Ewald said. “As a Newcastle doctor, I knew that air pollution from coal fi red power stations is harming local communities, but as a researcher, I never imagined that the scale of their impact would be so severe,” he said. “Literally hundreds of people are dying premature deaths every year because of coalfired power.” The study coincides with the review of pollution licences for the Vales Point and Eraring Power Stations.

“There’s got to be poor health outcomes by being exposed to this, day in, day out, and night in, night out,” said Sue Winn, secretary of the Mannering Park Progress Association. EJA Director of Advocacy and Research, Nicola Rivers, said: “The State Government must act immediately to safeguard community health. “There are pollution control measures available now that could cut emissions of toxic pollutants by up to 98 per cent,” she said.

“NSW Environment Minister, Gabrielle Upton, and Energy Minister, Don Harwin, must mandate pollution control measures to drastically reduce the amount of toxic air pollution that these power stations produce. “Until they do, the State Government is in effect giving coal-fi red power stations a licence to harm, a licence to kill,” Nicola Rivers concluded. The report recommended that power stations should be required to install modern pollution control technology to greatly reduce emissions. “The licences for Australian coalfired power stations should be amended to set stack emission limits, consistent with international best practice,” the report said.

“Coal fired power stations should be required to conduct continuous stack monitoring for SO2, NOx, particles and mercury, and this data should be made public in real time and as searchable retrospective data.” The report also calls for further research using detailed modelling to estimate the variability of air pollution across populated areas of NSW, and include lung cancer and non-fatal heart attacks.

According to the report, coal-fired power stations produce particles of two kinds: the primary particles that are released as coal is burnt, and secondary particles that form in the atmosphere from the SO2 and NOX released during combustion.

“Particle air pollution is described by size classes, as their size dictates where they end up in the human respiratory system. “Larger particles are trapped in the nose and upper airways, but the fi nest particles reach to the air sacs deep in the lungs, and even enter the blood stream, causing systemic effects. “No power station in Australia has post-combustion desulfurisation to remove SO2, or selective catalytic reduction to remove NOx. “Only some have special furnace designs to reduce NOx production, and none has mercury controls.

“Australia’s power stations therefore emit much higher concentrations of these pollutants than those in most other countries. The Wyee public forum comes at an important time as pollution licenses are currently under review by the NSW Environmental Protection Agency. Best practice pollution controls to reduce toxic pollution by up to 95 per cent are required for most power stations in other countries and could be installed here. Environmental Justice Australia, Doctors for the Environment Australia, Hunter Community Environment Centre and Nature Conservation Council of NSW, will also be hosting meetings in the Hunter, Lithgow and Sydney.

Source: Media release, Nov 21 Justin McKee, Environmental Justice Australia Report, Nov 21 Ben Ewald, University of Newcastle Media release, Nov 21 Emma Belfield, The Sunrise Project