Lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia have slammed a “paltry” fine imposed on the Vales Point coal-fired power station, saying the NSW Environmental Protection Agency had failed to hold the power station accountable for toxic pollution that was spread on site.
On Monday, the NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA) issued a $30,000 find to the Vales Point coal fired power station, due to toxic pollution that had been dumped, and allowed to spread, at the power station site.
The pollution was brought onto the site as part of rehabilitation work at various ponds of the power station’s ash dams, with a third-party contractor bringing material onto the site to carry out the work. The NSW EPA alleged that this material included toxic waste, including asbestos, and that the contractor was effectively using the Vales Point site as an asbestos waste dump.
The fine was imposed by the NSW EPA less than a week after the power station secured $8.7 million in taxpayer funds for upgrades to the ageing coal plant from the Morrison government in the federal budget.
The NSW EPA said that the power station had been penalised for alleged licence breaches relating to the dumping of toxic materials, during a period in 2018 when the rehabilitation works were taking place.
“The premises received waste that it was not licenced to accept, which resulted in contaminated fill being imported and spread on site,” the NSW EPA’s director of regulatory operations Adam Gilligan said.
“The EPA has issued Delta a clean-up notice to remove various surface stockpiles of asbestos waste and we are continuing to liaise with them regarding options for dealing with the remainder of the waste in the long term.”
The NSW EPA issued the $30,000 fine to Delta Electricity, the owner of the Vales Point power station, as well as issuing to penalty notices for unlawfully using the site as a waste facility.
Delta Electricity said that they accepted the findings of the NSW EPA and that it had worked to implement the directions issued by the agency to address the pollution issues, and had terminated its contract with Howard Recycling Services, which had been responsible for bringing the toxic waste onto the site.
“Delta respects the role of the Regulator and will promptly implement the directions” Delta Electricity managing director Greg Everett said. “Delta took immediate steps to bring the unauthorised material to the attention of the EPA. The Penalty Notice balances the need to protect the environment with the constructive approach by Delta in reporting and dealing with the issue.”
However, Environmental Justice Australia, a public interest legal organisation that focuses on the environment, said that the fine was inadequate, particularly in light of the funding the power station has just secured from the Morrison government.
“For decades, Central Coast communities living next to Vales Point coal-burning power station have raised concerns about the health impacts of coal pollution, including poorly managed coal ash dumps,” Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Jocelyn McGarity said.
“This paltry fine for serious environmental breaches is unlikely to materially affect Delta’s bottom line, and so will not be a disincentive to pollute.”
EJA noted that the maximum penalty for each penalty notice issued by the NSW EPA was $2 million and that the decision to issue a total fine of just $30,000 suggested that the EPA had not adequately considered the impacts and consequences of the pollution that had spread from the Vales Point power station site, particularly on human health.
“It’s disappointing to note that although the EPA recently amended its Prosecution Guidelines to include the consideration of human health and environmental justice principles, it has obviously given these factors little weight in deciding not to prosecute Delta. Had the EPA taken legal action, the maximum penalty available for each breach was $2 million,” McGarity said.
“Delta clearly failed to have adequate systems and procedures in place to safeguard the community and environment from asbestos waste. Because of that, there’s now a compounding of environmental issues at the ash dam.”
EJA said that it was concerned that the funding provided by the Morrison government towards upgrades at the Vales Point coal fired power station did not come with conditions to address the pollution caused by the power station.
“The fact that the Morrison government is seriously considering handing over millions of dollars of public money to prop up this ageing, failing power station when it continues to harm community health and breach environmental laws is frankly appalling,” McGarity added.
“Instead of rewarding these industries with public funds to operate for longer, governments must urgently move to address the serious flaws in our regulatory system.”
Environmental Justice Australia pointed to recently published research that showed that pollution from coal power stations in Australia had been a major contributor to worsening health outcomes among local communities, including by contributing to an additional 800 premature deaths, 14,500 asthma attacks, and 850 cases of babies born with low birth weight every year.
The Vales Point power station has previously been criticised by environmental groups for the level of pollution caused by the plant, including a reported spike in particulate pollution which can lead to respiratory issues for residents in nearby communities.