Yallourn’s toxic air pollution - a danger to health

Pollution from coal-burning power stations kills hundreds of Australians every year and Yallourn is one of the worst.

Coal pollution can be deadly

Mining, transporting and burning coal is a danger to human health.

Studies in the US have shown that communities close to coal mines have an increased risk for developing:

  • Potentially deadly heart and lung diseases
  • Lung conditions such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma, which prevent breathing and cause irreversable damage
  • Other lung diseases and kidney disease.

Death rates for these diseases are also higher in coal-mining areas.

These risks are increased when coal is burned, releasing toxic air pollution like fine particulate matter, mercury compounds, sulphur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen.

The health impacts from coal pollution are also costing local communities, with Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering finding coal is responsible for health impacts costing Australians $2.6 billion per year.

A Latrobe Valley resident wipes toxic coal dust from their windowsill.

A Latrobe Valley resident wipes toxic coal dust from their windowsill. Source: Latrobe Valley Express.

KEY FACTS

  • Yallourn coal mine and power station emits more than 30 toxic substances, including fine particles (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), mercury and oxides of nitrogen1
  • Yallourn emits the most toxic mercury of any power station in Australia, more than 400 kilograms per year.2
  • Yallourn is the third-largest source of fine particle pollution (PM2.5), which is harmful to human health4
  • Communities living near coal-burning power stations are at greater risk of heart, lung and kidney diseases5
  • Technology can reduce this toxic pollution and save lives but Yallourn’s owners EnergyAustralia haven’t installed it

Air pollution is harming local communities

Worldwide, air pollution is a major cause of death and disease. For example, air pollution is responsible for an estimate 29 percent of deaths and disease from lung cancer, and 24 percent of all deaths from stroke.6

Burning coal is the largest source of air pollution in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria.7 And within the Valley, the worst polluter is Yallourn power station.

In 2017-18 Yallourn power station emitted 436 kilograms of toxic mercury, the most of any power station in the country.8 This is four times more toxic mercury than power stations in other states.

Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and a developing foetus.9

Yallourn is also a major source of another type of dangerous air pollution, called ‘fine particulate matter’, or PM 2.5. These tiny airborne particles can become lodged deep in the lungs or brain. Exposure has been linked with heart and lung disease, and lung cancer. The World Health Organisation has declared PM 2.5 is “dangerous to human health at all levels”.10

Toxic coal pollution - a local’s story

“I have lived in Moe for nearly five years, and suffered with respiratory problems including asthma, hay fever and a deep persistent cough only since moving here. I have been told to leave the area on medical advice, but at 63 cannot afford to relocate… Why should I be forced out of my home due to pollution when there is the technology to capture most of the emissions? Children are particularly vulnerable to the pollution here and coal dust is one of the most toxic forms of pollution.”

Robyn, 63, who lives nine kilometres from Yallourn power

Yallourn hasn’t installed technology to reduce toxic pollution

Most coal-burning power stations are designed to last 30 years. Yallourn power station is more than 45 years old.

Technology has come a long way since the 1970s. We now have the technology to reduce toxic pollution from coal-burning power stations by up to 99 percent.

There are no technological barriers to installing this technology at Yallourn and saving lives. But it costs money and the owners, EnergyAustralia, haven’t done it.

Yallourn’s yearly emissions of toxic pollutants and available reduction technology

Data source: National Pollutant Inventory, Environmental Justice Australia submission to Victorian licence review.

For decades, Yallourn has been pumping out toxic air pollution that could have been prevented, and the local community has been paying the health costs.

Lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia have suggested that Yallourn’s failure to install this technology or reduce emissions could be a breach of their EPA licence.11

References

  1. https://www.envirojustice.org.au/powerstations/
  2. https://www.envirojustice.org.au/npi-report-sees-toxic-pollutants-soar-again-and-highlights-need-for-pollution-controls-on-coal-fired-power-stations/
  3. http://www.npi.gov.au/resource/mercury-compounds
  4. National Pollutant Inventory, 2017/18
  5. M Hendryx, MM Ahern, ‘Relations between heath indicators and residential proximity to coal mining in West Virginia,’ Am J Public Health,  2008   
  6. https://www.who.int/airpollution/ambient/health-impacts/en/
  7. Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry
  8.  https://www.envirojustice.org.au/our-work/community/air-pollution/national-pollutants-inventory/
  9. http://www.npi.gov.au/resource/mercury-compounds
  10. http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/189051/Health-effects-of-particulate-matter-final-Eng.pdf
  11. https://www.envirojustice.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/EJA_submission_vic_power_station_licences_final.pdf