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:
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. Source: Latrobe Valley Express.
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
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.
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