- Communities living near coal-fired power plants in Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Tasmania
Coal combustion produces hazardous air pollutants which include sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and arsenic. As per Environmental Justice Australia’s analysis report, Australia’s coal mines have increased PM10 particles by 61% in the past 10 years. Around 2.1 million Australians are exposed to toxic pollutants due to coal-fired power plants. According to the Commonwealth of Australia (2016), Australia has approximately 70 active underground rock mines. The majority of underground mines are in Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory, and Tasmania.
An estimated 13,000 people work in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, digging and mining the land. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, mine workers earn higher full-time weekly wages compared to other professions with an average wage of $2,674 (£1467). Communities living closer to coal-fired power plants tend to have serious health effects. Overexposure to coal dust damages people’s cardiovascular and nervous systems which increases the risk of developing heart disease, respiratory infections, stroke, and cardiopulmonary disease. Adults living near coal-fired power stations have been found to have increased risk of death from lung, laryngeal and bladder cancer, skin cancer, and increased asthma rates. Children and infants in communities near coal-fired power stations have been found to have Oxidative deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) damage, impaired fetal and child growth, impaired neurological development, low birth weight, preterm births, increased asthma rates, and respiratory symptoms. Coal plants cost Australians an annual health bill of more than $2.4 billion. Overexposure to coal dust can also lead to development of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) which is also known as black lung disease. There is no cure, and most treatments involve limiting further damage to lungs.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has developed many dust-control strategies to minimise the workers inhaling dust particles. These strategies include installation of curtains to deflect dust-laden air, efficient shearer scrubber design, effective operation of water sprays in caving shields to reduce caving-dust migration.
Environmental Protection Authority and New South Wales’s Department of Planning, Industry and Environment have developed ‘Dust Assessment Handbook’ which guides mine operators to undertake mining activities in an efficient manner while minimising dust production. Australian Environment Ministers have established National Clean Air Agreement to identify and prioritise actions in regard to air quality issues. National Clean Air Agreement reviews are completed every two years.
However, the governments in each state and territory have the authority to create their own systems and measures to manage the pollution. Thus, there is no collaboration between the states regarding efficiency of their systems in place to determine which strategies are more effective until the next review. I would like to recommend more collaboration opportunities to be provided to states and territories in order to share knowledge regarding efficient control over coal dust pollution.
The Victorian Government is reviewing the licences of the current coal fired power stations and also accepting community submissions on which coal fired licence conditions should be set. This increases public involvement and brings new perspectives on how to efficiently combat the pollution. This can be a good practice for other states and territories to adapt.
Australia’s national pollution standards currently exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended thresholds. I would like to recommend if Australia’s 24-hour sulfur dioxide standard can be aligned with World Health Organization’s recommendation of 7.6parts per billion. There is lack of awareness in terms of coal dust pollution in Australia. I would also recommend that air pollution monitoring data should be publicly available for people.
Environmental Health Australia
Phone: +61 7 3554 0115
The Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand
Phone: +61 3 9727 3911
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Riya Shukla