Historically, coal fuelled power generation has made a valuable contribution to Australia’s development and wealth creation. This however should not lead us to now ignore the evidence of coal industries’ major contribution to anthropogenic climate change and local air pollution. Yet this week the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) approved the Works Approval for Dual Gas Pty Ltd’s new 600 MW coal fuelled power plant in the Latrobe Valley. How can a power plant expected to have a greenhouse gas emission intensity similar to that of a black coal power plant be considered “part of the solution” in 2012?
Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), a nation wide health advocacy group, took their concerns to VCAT last year after the EPA approved a 300MW plant – an un-precedent legal step for a health organization. This is because DEA are strongly of the view that coal is a health hazard and that there are alternatives that can now cover all needs in the delivery of reliable power.
Coal combustion contributes to a large proportion of Australian and global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is a health issue: Margaret Chan, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General has stated ‘that the real bottom-line of climate change is its risk to human health and quality of life’. WHO details how climate change endangers health by threatening the most basic pre-requisites for good health ie. clean air and water, sufficient food, adequate shelter and freedom from disease (in addition to leading to direct health impacts related to injuries and even death from extreme weather events eg. bushfires, flooding and heat waves- that we in Australia are so aware of).
However it was not only the predicted greenhouse gas emissions that lead DEA to VCAT. Locally the combustion of coal results in a cocktail of irritant, toxic and carcinogenic air pollutants that can be harmful to health, including sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulates and mercury. Many of these pollutants are inhaled deep into the lungs, where not only are they direct irritants on our lungs but they can also cause heart disease, irregular heart rhythms, stoke, cancer and premature death. These air pollutants have also been shown to result in increased hospital admissions and emergency presentations, with health effects occurring even at current air quality levels. The most susceptible are the young, the old and people with pre-existing medical conditions.
It is vitally important to realise that from a public health and environment perspective, coal combustion as an energy source is an expensive financial option. A 2011 published peer-reviewed study from the Harvard Medical School estimated that the full life cycle effects of coal are costing the US public a third to a half of a trillion dollars annually (over US$1000- per year for every Amercan man, woman and child). Estimates from this Harvard study effectively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh.
Whilst equivalent Australian studies are lacking, the Australian Acadamy of Technological Sciences and Engineering estimated, for the 2007 financial year, a health financial burden of $2.6 billion for Australia when accounting for the health effects of only three of the many potentially harmful coal power station emissions (particulates, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen). This figure was then estimated to increases to $8.3 billion annually in total externality costs when greenhouse gas impacts from coal combustion were included.
The VCAT decisions are required to follow State Environment Protection Policy in which there is scope to argue for industry best practice and the obligation to uphold the precautionary principle and the principle of intergenerational equity. The application of ‘best practice’ and these two princilples were vigorously argued for by DEA and other objectors.
The failure of VCAT to use these principles to protect the human health of present and future generations is a gross failure of our regulatory system and a stark reminder of how it is not keeping up with the science. This failure is not limited to Victoria, nor to the coal industry; it is nationwide and reflects both taming of state EIS processes to encompass resource industry demands and an outmoded federal energy policy. This is evident in the coal seam gas mining industry where many approvals were given before the word “health” was mentioned
DEA was relieved however that the VCAT upheld recommendations from both the Department of Health and the Victorian EPA to address the increasing sulphur dioxide emissions within the Latrobe Valley from power plants by requiring sulphur dioxide emission reduction conditions. DEA argued comprehensively for these conditions to be upheld, although this was opposed by Dual Gas. This we believe is a win for the local community’s health.
At times like these we need strong decisive leaders who can analyse and interpret the scientific evidence. Leaders who will not be influenced by vested interests and who will do what is right for our health and wellbeing. When it comes to our reliance on the coal industry we do not have decades to reform personal and government behaviour – as it took to convince policy makers of the detrimental health impacts of both smoking and the asbestos industry. Maurice Blackburn has represented numerous smoking and asbestos victims and acted pro bono for DEA in our VCAT challenge – in an attempt to preempt and help mitigate future health impacts. The involvement of an experienced legal establishment is likely to be a portent of future litigation against the coal industry and governments for their failure to accept the present day science and to act appropriately to protect health.
We remind governments that inappropriate decisions cause human suffering, and it would be wise of them to consider the personal test. If all the medical facts were carefully explained to them by a medical scientist they respected, would they have their family live in the viscinity of this power station?
Dr Eugenie Kayak is the Victorian chair of the DEA.