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Clean Air Bill 2018

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Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens MP
15 November 2018

This is a very simple bill with a very simple intention: to safeguard people's health by ensuring the five remaining coal-fired power stations in New South Wales are brought in line with the rest of the world when it comes to toxic air pollution.

All people have a fundamental right to breathe clean air. But right now, because of lax and inconsistent regulation of coal-fired power stations, people on the Central Coast, in the Hunter Valley, near Lithgow and in Sydney are being exposed to dangerous levels of toxic air pollutants. Environmental Justice Australia has done a huge amount of work comparing the different pollution standards around the world, and the evidence it presents is alarming. In New South Wales, we have some of the worst regulation of pollution from coal-fired power stations in the world, and it is killing people.

The permissible levels of emissions of four key pollutants—oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, fine particle pollution and mercury—are many times higher than what is acceptable in the European Union, the United States or even China. Around the world, as emissions control technology and knowledge about the health costs of pollution have improved, governments have progressively lowered pollution limits for power stations to protect people's health. But not so in New South Wales: In New South Wales we let our power stations operate to standards that are comparable to those set when the power stations were first commissioned back in the 1970s and 1980s. This is clearly unacceptable.

In the European Union the maximum level of emissions of sulphur dioxide from coal-fired power stations is 400 milligrams per cubic metre, and in China it is 200 milligrams. In New South Wales our power stations are allowed to emit a whopping 1,716 milligrams of sulphur dioxide per cubic metre. That is 8½ times higher than in China. In both the European Union and China oxides of nitrogen emissions are restricted to 200 milligrams per cubic metre, but in New South Wales the regulations for Vales Point and Mount Piper allow 7½ times more pollution at 1,500 milligrams per cubic metre. It is no wonder that power stations account for 54 per cent of Sydney's levels oxides of nitrogen and 87 per cent of levels of sulphur dioxide pollution.

For mercury it is even worse. We allow Vales Point Power Station to emit 666 times more mercury than is allowed in the United States and levels 33 times higher than the permissible levels in China. This pollution is killing people. A 2015 study by Broome et al into the health benefits of reducing air pollution in Sydney, published in the journalEnvironmental Research, found that 430 premature deaths and 630 respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions could be attributed to air pollution. The authors found that a total of 5,800 years of life are lost to air pollution in Sydney each year. We know that people who live within 50 kilometres of coal-fired power stations face a risk of premature death as much as three to four times that of people living further away. Nationally, power stations are responsible for an annual health bill of $2.6 billion.

Toxic emissions from power stations cause adverse health impacts in communities at least 200 kilometres away. In New South Wales, particle characterisation studies have shown that air pollution from the Hunter and Central Coast power stations travels as far as 200 kilometres—which is to Sydney—contributing to poorer air quality and exposing millions of people to toxic emissions. Air pollution increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, asthma, lung cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, choking and coughing, and headaches. It also has serious developmental and reproductive effects. A review of the health impacts of emission sources, types and levels of particulate matter air pollution in ambient air in New South Wales produced for the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority stated:

The exposure to levels of particulate matter that currently exist in NSW will have measurable adverse impacts on health, particularly in vulnerable people such as individuals with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, the elderly, and children. Reductions in PM air pollution in NSW are likely to result in health benefits, particularly for these most vulnerable groups.

The report also stated:

There is no evidence of a threshold level of ambient PM2.5, below which further reductions in concentration will not provide additional population health benefits.

This is similar to advice from the World Health Organization. The report specifically looked at coal-fired power stations emissions and found:

Sufficient & strong evidence of harm from direct emissions & formation of secondary aerosols, PM2.5-sulphate.

Clearly we in this place have a responsibility to do all we can to reduce emissions, at least in line with global standards. If we do not take urgent action to force the power stations to clean up their pollution, then we are directly responsible for the numerous deaths that these toxic emissions will cause. Currently under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 the levels of any emissions for any plant or equipment, including power stations, are set by regulation or, where no regulation exists, they are set by the environment protection licence. The regulations then further divide different plants into six different groups depending on the date that they were commissioned, meaning that we have completely inconsistent standards for each of the coal-fired power stations in New South Wales.

This bill amends section 128 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 by mandating the maximum stack emissions of four air impurities that can be emitted by all coal-fired power stations in New South Wales. The levels chosen in the bill reflect the standards of concentration for nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and PM2.5 that were set by the European Union in 2010. The maximum limits are nitrogen dioxide or nitric oxide or both, as nitrogen dioxide equivalent, 200 milligrams per cubic metre; sulphur dioxide, 200 milligrams per cubic metre; and particles as PM2.5, 20 milligrams per cubic metre.

This is based on advice commissioned by Environmental Justice Australia and given by Dr Ron Sahu, an air pollution expert with more than 30 years experience in regulation and compliance. For mercury the bill limits emissions to 1.5 micrograms per cubic metre. This is a rate equivalent to the United States mercury emission rate as there is no consistent standard currently in the European Union. We have adopted this rate based on advice provided to Environmental Justice Australia by an engineer with significant power station experience and a former United States Environmental Protection Agency regulator. Both have indicated that this rate would be easily achievable by each of New South Wales' power stations and reflects best practice in comparable jurisdictions. And that is an important point.

These emissions could all be reduced by as much as 95 per cent by installing emission control technologies that have been standard practice around the world since the 1970s. There is no technical barrier to meeting the standards prescribed in this bill. There are three technologies which are best able to achieve this—flue gas desulphurisation to remove sulphur dioxide, selective catalytic reduction to remove nitrous oxide and activated carbon injection to remove mercury. In the United States, Europe and Japan, older power stations have been required to retrofit these emission control technologies and have seen reductions in emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and mercury respectively by 85 per cent or more.

Since 2012 more than 90 per cent of the power stations in Asia have fitted selective catalytic reduction, and all new power plants need to be fitted with both flue gas desulphurisation and selective catalytic reduction. Every year the five coal-fired power stations in New South Wales, those dirty old clunkers, are spewing out more than 120,000 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide and more than 170,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide. How can this be acceptable to us? How can this be acceptable to us for our children and for future generations? With these technologies this could be reduced by 90 per cent and lives will be saved.

Following a question I asked the Minister for Energy and Utilities in the House recently about the current review of pollution licences for three of the five coal-fired power stations that will be coming online and whether the New South Wales Government supports the tightening of the environment protection licences to set much lower stack emission limits and bring New South Wales coal-fired power stations in line with the United States, the European Union and China, he said:

It is important to recognise that while there are certainly emissions that are problematic from coal-fired power stations, nevertheless they are a crucial part of the energy mix in this country and they will continue to be for some time.

He also said:

While being careful to make sure that we get the best possible outcome on emissions, we also need to be careful—always—about allowing unplanned, disorderly closures of power stations that provide such a large percentage of our energy needs.

This is a false argument for inaction. The standards set by this bill can be met with available technology and they will not shut down coal-fired power stations. The National Clean Air Agreement, to which New South Wales is a signatory, states:

Governments, businesses and the community need to be active to ensure a clean air future. It is critical that governments and businesses take action to continue to improve our air quality and ensure our management of air quality continues to meet community expectations.

Community expectations are that we, as members of Parliament, will act to protect people's lives and health rather than do nothing and protect the mega profits of AGL, Origin Energy and Delta Energy. This bill is a vital part of meeting our obligation to keep the people of New South Wales safe by taking significant steps to clean up our air. I hope we at least will have the support of Labor members for this bill, given they have spruiked their support for a world-class regulatory regime for coalmining and coal-fired power. This is the minimum needed to meet that standard.

Of course there are many more things that are essential to cleaning up our air. We need an ambitious whole-of-government pollution reduction strategy that addresses emissions from transport, households and industry. This should have clear targets for emissions reduction. We need to fast-track the transition to electric vehicles and ensure emissions standards for other vehicles are world's best practice. We need to adopt air quality standards that are in line with world's best practice and ensure we have a comprehensive network of real time pollution monitors. We need to strengthen the load-based licensing scheme and extend the scheme to the mining industry. This bill is not the silver bullet, but bringing our coal-fired power stations into line with accepted global standards of air pollution is an important step. I commend the bill to the House.

 

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Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens MP
15 November 2018
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