Coal Rocks On, Features

Dust in the wind: air pollution up 61% in 10 years

Australia’s coal mines have seen a 61% increase in PM10 particles during the past 10 years, according to analysis from Environmental Justice Australia.

Predictably, coal mining regions of Central Queensland, North West NSW, and the Hunter were home to mines producing the most particulate pollution.

Of note is Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine, which, since construction began in 2014, has produced a considerable amount of dust, with more than seven million kilograms recorded last year alone.

Other mines in the North West also recorded increases in dust levels over five years, including Boggabri coal mine (23%), and Tarrawonga Coal Mine (9%).

Similarly, several Hunter Valley coal mines recorded increases in dust levels over five years, such as Yancoal Moolarben Coal Operations at Ulan (136%), Mt Owen Mine at Ravensworth (37%), Hunter Valley Operations – Coal and Allied (9%), Bulga Coal Surface and Underground Operations (12%), and Bengalla Operations – Coal & Allied (14%).

Adverse health outcomes

According to NSW Health, PM10 – also known as “coarse particles” could be associated with adverse health effects, such as:

• cough;

• wheeze, or worsening of asthma;

• increased need for medications (eg puffers, antibiotics);

• increased breathlessness;

• heart problems.

Singleton doctor Bob Vickers, from Doctors for the Environment Australia, said, “We are being told time and time again by the mines themselves, and the regulatory bodies, that best practice methods are being used to control air pollution.

“Clearly this isn’t the case. The children of the Hunter Valley already have unfairly higher rates of asthma than children in other parts of the country.

“We’re now in the middle of a respiratory virus pandemic, and now our airways and hearts have been weakened by this long-term exposure to air pollution. There is no better time to take serious action to reduce pollution than now.” 

Garden and water supply contaminated

Ros Druce, who lives on her family’s farm at Maules Creek said she had noticed an increase in coal dust since the mine opened, particularly its effects on her garden and rainwater supply.

“My shrubs including geraniums, which are nearly impossible to kill, a lot of them suffered severely during the drought and have died even though I was continuing to water them.

“When I inspected them, I found coal dust on the leaves and because the leaves of geraniums face up, they were collecting the dust.

“I also have to constantly clean the gutters due to all the fallout from the mine, prior to any sign of rain, otherwise all that black dirty stuff ends up in the rainwater tank when it does rain.”

Ms Druce said the NSW EPA also conducted a coal dust analysis in an enclosed barbecue area on the property, which revealed 10-15% coal dust was gathered.

Lock the Gate Alliance spokesperson Georgina Woods said people in the Hunter, particularly in the Singleton area, had long been complaining of increased air pollution.

She urged the NSW Environmental Protection Agency to add pollution from coal mining to its “load based licencing” scheme.

“This increase in air pollution across the nation is deeply concerning because we know it has an impact on people’s health,” Woods said.

“We urge the NSW Government to add particulate and other pollution from coal mines to its load based licencing scheme so the companies creating this pollution pay the cost of it. Putting a price on pollution will focus the attention of mine operators on how to clear the air.

“It is a major flaw in the scheme that coal mines are not required to pay for the same pollution that other industries, which create less of it, are having to pay for. Coal mining is among the biggest contributors to PM10 particles in the state.”

State pollution figures:  

New South Wales

Delta Electricity reported alarming increases in emissions from their Vales Point coal-fired power station on the Central Coast of New South Wales, including a 121% increase in coarse particle emissions (PM10) and a 181% increase in deadly fine particle emissions (PM2.5). PM2.5 from Vales Point has increased 3000% since 2012-13. While the power station generated 63% more energy in 2018-19 than in 2012-13, this does not explain a 3000% increase in pollution. This is a matter the NSW EPA should investigate.

Eraring, Bayswater and Mt Piper are the second, third and fourth biggest power station emitters of SO2 in the country. 

The NPI highlights significantly increased emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) from NSW power stations. The Liddell, Eraring and Mt Piper power stations increased SO2 emissions by 10%, 15% and 20% respectively.

Bayswater is in the top three polluters for SO2 and NOx. The NSW government approved the expansion of Bayswater power station without requiring pollution controls to be installed (as recommended by pollution control experts).

There are no permanent, public air quality monitoring stations near the Eraring or Mt Piper power stations so local residents don’t know what they’re breathing.

Victoria 

Fine particle pollution (PM2.5) emissions from EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn power station in Victoria increased by 82%. This is even though Yallourn had one of its generating units offline for maintenance during the year.

Yallourn’s pollution control equipment is currently the focus of legal action initiated by Environmental Justice Australia in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

Yallourn and Loy Yang A are the second and third biggest emitters of PM2.5 in the nation, with 1,372,757kgs and 531,054kgs, respectively. Neither have fabric bag filters to capture 99% of this pollution. All the NSW power stations have fabric bag filters installed and so emit less than half of Loy Yang and less than a quarter of Yallourn. Even though Loy Yang B is very small in terms of energy output, it still emits almost twice as much PM2.5 as Eraring, which is the biggest power station in Australia.

Loy Yang A is the biggest power station emitter of SO2 in the country, with 46,065,106kgs.

The three Victorian power stations are by far the biggest emitters of mercury in the nation. Loy Yang B is the biggest emitter in the country despite being one of the smallest power stations! Combined they emit more than 1,000kgs of Mercury. The next eight biggest power stations in Australia combined emit less than 500kgs.

Queensland

The biggest power station polluter of PM2.5 in the nation is Tarong (QLD), by an astronomical amount, with 1,860,738kgs. It is not fitted with fabric bag filters to capture 99% of this pollution.

Gladstone and Stanwell (QLD) are the two biggest power station emitters of NOx in the nation, with 34,901,400kgs and 31,507,340kgs, respectively. Particle pollution emissions PM2.5 from Gladstone power station increased by 23%.

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