Report sees toxic pollutants soar again and highlights need for pollution controls on coal-fired power stations

This year’s National Pollutant Inventory reveals soaring toxic emissions from coal-fired power stations and highlights the need for our ageing fleet of generators to be fitted with readily available emission controls required in most other countries.

Coal-fired power stations remain the dominant source of Australia’s fine particle pollution (26% of the national ‘all sources’ total), oxides of nitrogen (26%), and sulfur dioxide (49%) andare responsible for an annual health bill of $2.6 billion.[

“This year’s NPI confirms the urgent need for an overhaul of state pollution controls for coal-fired power stations and the introduction of national pollution standards at the federal level,” said Environmental Justice Australia researcher, Dr James Whelan who spent Friday analysing the data.

“State governments are allowing coal-fired power stations to emit as much as 20 times more toxic air pollution than permitted in other countries.”

“State premiers could, at the stroke of a pen, reduce this toxic air pollution by 95% or more by requiring coal-burning generators to install best available technology to control fine particle pollution, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.”

“Installing proper pollution controls could improve health outcomes for millions of Australians. In other countries, these power stations would not be permitted to pollute at this level.”

EJA’s analysis of this year’s NPI data has revealed:

  • There is a serious flaw in the NPI methodology. Most power station operators estimate (rather than measure) emissions using handbooks developed 20 years ago by the industry. The QLD government-owned Stanwell power station in Central Queensland installed continuous emission monitoring and its reported emissions of oxides of nitrogen doubledthis year from 18 to 36 million kilograms.
  • Victorian power stations emit far more mercury than other coal-fired power stations in Australia. Compared to most power stations which report emissions well under 100kg per annum, the three Latrobe Valley power stations reported emitting 280kg (Alinta’s Loy Yang B), 292kg (AGL’s Loy Yang A) and 436kg (EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn).

  • EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn power station is the highest mercury emitter of any Australian power station.
  • The NRG Gladstone power station emitted more oxides of nitrogen (NOx) than any other power station, despite generating only half as much energy as Origin Energy’s Eraring power station.
  • The QLD government-owned Tarong power station emitted more than 2 million kilograms of deadly fine particle pollution, 15 times more than Origin Energy’s Eraring, Australia’s largest power station. Tarong does not have bag filters.

Coal mining is the second greatest source of coarse particle pollution (22%) after metal ore mining (28%). Australia’s 92 coal mines emitted 320 million kg of PM10 in 2017-18.

  • Of the 50 mines emitting the highest levels of coarse particle pollution (PM10) nation-wide, 25 were in Central Queensland. The Dawson, Hall Creek and Callide mines, all in the top five, reported their PM10 emissions had increased by 6%, 18% and 145% respectively.
  • Coarse particle pollution (PM10) from coal mines in the Namoi region has increased significantly. Emissions from Maules Creek increased to 9,850 tonnes (up 59% in one year), Boggabri increased to 5,147 tonnes (up 27%), Tarrawonga to 2,343 tonnes (up 31%) and Werris Creek to 2,247 (up 29%). The NSW EPA’s ‘Coalwatch’ scheme has again failed to control particle pollution. 

“By measuring rather than estimating emissions, the Stanwell coal-fired power station found they were in fact emitting twice as much toxic pollution. All power stations should be required to install continuous stack monitoring,” Dr Whelan said.

“In other countries, coal-fired power stations are required to install best practice emission controls. Bag filters, flue gas desulfurisation, selective catalytic reduction and activated carbon injection reduce emissions of particle pollution, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and mercury respectively by 85% or more.”

“Australian governments should reject all proposals for new or expanded power stations unless they include modern pollution control technologies” said epidemiologist Dr Ben Ewald and member of Doctors for the Environment.

The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is self-reported by industry and not audited, but it is Australia’s most comprehensive source of air pollution data. The Federal Government publishes the NPI annually from information supplied by various industries, compiled by the states and territories.