Blog | 12th Oct, 2020

ANALYSIS: The EPA has taken almost THREE YEARS to review coal power station licences

It’s been almost three years since Victoria’s pollution watchdog – the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) – began a review of the licence conditions for our state’s three remaining coal-burning power stations: Yallourn, Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B.

It’s time the EPA comes clean with Victorians about what is happening on this crucial process to curb coal’s disastrous effects on our climate, health, air and water.


Through the licence review the EPA has the power – and the responsibility – to limit the vast amounts of greenhouse gases these coal power stations pump out. Together they produce 41 percent of Victoria’s total emissions.

The review should also tighten limits on toxic pollution from these coal power stations, including particulates, mercury, sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen. These dangerous particles and chemicals pollute our air and water and harm the health of local communities.

But despite completing community consultation back in 2018 and assuring Victorians since early 2019 that a decision was imminent, the EPA has given no word on when they will finalise the review and what changes we’ll see.

TAKE action: Send the EPA an Overdue Notice

Victorians deserve to know why our pollution watchdog is giving us radio silence on this licence review and the biggest pollution issue of our time – the need to limit emissions driving the climate crisis.

WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG?

In 2017, the EPA began a review of coal power station licences to keep “up to date with changing science, environmental conditions and community standards” and flagged emissions limits, monitoring and reporting as key issues.

Initially they were only seeking input from the coal power station operators themselves: EnergyAustralia, AGL, and Alinta Energy.

But together with Environmental Justice Australia and community groups in the Latrobe Valley, we pushed the EPA to open the review up to public input.

The EPA formally kicked off community consultations in November 2017, accepting submissions on how the licences should be updated to meet community expectations. Unsurprisingly they heard a LOT about climate change and air pollution as the top issues to address.

The EPA said they would announce their decision by around April 2019. But eighteen months later we still haven’t heard what’s going on.

It is interesting to note that progress on finalising the licence review appears to have stalled just after the EPA started negotiating with the owners of the coal power stations and coming up with proposed licence amendments.

Victoria’s coal power station operators clearly have an incentive to resist limits on greenhouse gas pollution or stricter monitoring and regulations to control toxic pollution.

In May 2020, we submitted a Freedom of Information request to the EPA asking to see draft licences and correspondence with power station operators that might explain the hold-up … We still haven’t been provided with any documents.

We followed this up in July 2020, with a written request asking the EPA to provide a date by which the review will be finalised. Again, we have received no answer.

Days since the EPA started the review ...

The full timeline …

2017

NOVEMBER – EPA coal-burning power station licence review process officially starts

2018

DECEMBER (2017) to MAY – EPA undertakes community consultation

AUGUST – Formal conference held in Traralgon to inform the EPA’s process, revealing strong community support for GHG limits and tighter air pollution

2019

JANUARY to JUNE – EPA begins making recommendations, negotiating with licence holders and drafting licence amendments.

Nothing happens for over 10 months …

2020

MAY – Environment Victoria lodges a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see the draft licences sent to power station operators. We are still awaiting requested documents.

JULY – Environment Victoria writes to the EPA asking them to clarify when the licence review would be finalised. No answer to date.

No outcome or deadline more than a THOUSAND days after the coal power station licence review began.
WHY THIS REVIEW MATTERS

COAL POLLUTION THREATENS EVERYONE’S FUTURE

Yallourn, Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B crank out over 40 percent of Victoria’s total greenhouse gas emissions, sending 112,000 tonnes of carbon emissions into our overheating atmosphere. Every. Single. Day.1,2

Through Victoria’s Climate Change Act 2017 the EPA has the power to reduce Victoria’s climate pollution towards the 2050 target of zero net emissions3 and is required to consider climate change as part of any licence decision.4

The EPA would not be discharging their duty to consider climate change if it does not impose any limits or constraints on greenhouse gas pollution. How could you choose to do nothing about three facilities that produce 41% of the state’s emissions?

Find out more about how EPA limits to coal’s climate pollution could work here.

WE ARE LAGGING THE WORLD IN AIR POLLUTION STANDARDS

The Latrobe Valley’s three coal power stations are responsible for some of the worst air pollution in the country. The most problematic emissions are coarse particles (PM10), fine particles (PM2.5), sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and mercury.

Annual mean near-surface PM2.5 concentration due to emissions from Latrobe Valley coal power stations. From Greenpeace's 'Lethal Power' report p.18.

The first peer-reviewed study of the health burden of coal-burning power in Australia found that air pollution from Victorian coal-burning power stations causes 205 premature deaths, 259 low birthweight babies, and 4,376 children with asthma each year.5

The current licences include limits for some toxic substances, but they are inadequate and lag far behind the standards of other countries.6 For example, Victoria’s coal fired power station licences currently have NO mercury limits and the particle limit for Loy Yang A is eight times higher the limit in China.7

Installing the kind of pollution controls already mandated in the US, EU and China would cost the power station owners money. But the EPA should set standards based on what will keep local people safe, not on what the power station operators say they are prepared to pay.

 

WATER POLLUTION MANAGEMENT IS COMPLETELY INADEQUATE

Environmental Justice Australia have exposed a frightening lack of regulation and poor track record of coal ash ponds which are contaminating Gippsland’s air, groundwater and river systems.8

Victoria’s coal-burning power stations produce mountains of coal ash – a concentrated mix of toxins including arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, radium, selenium and thallium.9 This is usually mixed with water and then stored near power stations causing major concerns with contamination of water systems, as well as uncovered ash blowing freely into local townships.

Coal's impact on water is a longstanding issue. In 2012 part of the Yallourn mine wall collapsed, causing the Morwell River to flow into the pit.

In 2015, an EPA inquiry found a ruptured ash disposal pipeline at Yallourn caused 8.6 megalitres of ash liquid to be dumped into the Morwell River. This breach of their licence resulted in a paltry $7584 fine,10 showing that licence conditions were not sufficient to prevent harm.

Ash ponds must be better regulated to protect groundwater and licence conditions must be amended to enforce better management of risks and penalties for breaches.

Many people are reliant on local water systems like the Latrobe River and Gippsland Lakes for agriculture, fishing, tourism and recreation. Information must be made publicly available so those affected by unacceptable coal ash management are not being kept in the dark.

WHAT THE EPA NEEDS TO DO NOW

Every day of delay is a day of more damage. Victoria’s pollution watchdog needs to step up and get serious about reducing the impact of these coal generators.

Given what is at stake – from the urgent need for action on the climate crisis through to local health and environmental impacts – if the EPA fails to deliver by imposing meaningful licence conditions to reduce the damage from coal, the entire multi-year process of reforming the EPA will have been for nothing.

If the EPA won’t stand up to the biggest polluters in town, what are they doing?

Take action

It has been almost THREE YEARS since Victoria’s pollution watchdog – the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) – began their coal licence review.

It’s not good enough. Click below to send them an OVERDUE NOTICE demanding they come clean by Nov 1, 2020.

Footnotes 
  1. Clean Energy Regulator, 2020, Electricity sector emissions and generation data 2018–19 
  2. National Greenhouse Gas Inventory reports Victoria’s total CO2 equivalent emissions for 2018 were 102,188.73 Gg (1,000 tonneshttps://ageis.climatechange.gov.au/  
  3. Climate Change Act 2017 (Vic), s101 which amended Environment Protection Act 1970 (Vic)s13(1(ga)(ii)
  4. Climate Change Act 2017 (Vic) s17, s20
  5. Greenpeace Australia Pacific, 2020, Lethal Power: How Burning Coal is Killing People in Australia, pp. 22-24 
  6. Environmental Justice Australia 2017, Toxic and Terminal: How the regulation of coal-fired power stations fails Australian communities, p. 3, accessed at: https://www.envirojustice.org.au/powerstations/
  7. Environmental Justice Australia 2017 Ibid. p. 3
  8. Environmental Justice Australia ‘Coal ash dumps and community health’ 
  9. Environmental Justice Australia, 2019, Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacyp.5
  10. EnergyAustralia, 2015 ‘EnergyAustralia responds to waste discharge incident’ 29 July 2015