The True Cost of Coal Ash Flying in the Face of Port Augustans

Air pollution from blowing ash in Port Augusta in SA has become a major issue. This article and others on the topic of coal from the DEA team in SA has failed to be published in the Advertiser (NewsCorp). The dedication of the Australian newspaper and related papers to coal development, clean coal etc is in our view based on incorrect scientific interpretation and carries considerable concerns for individual and world health.

By Dr. Ingo Weber

The recent coal ash clouds causing respiratory problems and much grief to the community of Port Augusta are just part of a long list of health issues doctors are aware of when it comes to burning coal. Doctors for the Environment Australia have previously documented, in submissions to the SA government, the health impacts on children and adults living in Port Augusta when the coal-fired power stations were operational.

About 10% of the weight of coal burnt remains as ash, particularly the heavier “bottom” ash. In Port Augusta, this ash now covers an area of 200 hectares and is just one of the many toxic by-products due to the Port Augusta power-stations. Even if the ash contains no toxic metals (some lead has already been identified), fly-ash dust places the population at a significant increased risk of exacerbations of asthma, chronic airways disease, upper airways irritation and cancer. The content of lead and other toxic metals in Port Augusta’s fly-ash is not fully documented but, if present, will pose additional potentially serious issues – lead is highly neuro-toxic, for example.

The Port Augusta ash problem is just another example of the appalling costs of utilising fossil fuels. The whole life-cycle of coal, from mining, transport and burning and burying the ash, is associated with significant health problems and the costs are not accounted for by politicians or by the energy generators who claim the electricity is “cheap”. These “unpaid” costs are inflicted on the community, to future generations and the tax-payer, all of whom will pay with their health and their wallet.

The ill-health, from fossil-fuel burning alone, costs every single Australian well over $100 a year due to pollutants such as Nitrous Oxide, Sulphur Dioxide and small particulate matter being dispersed through our communities, and causing lung and cardiovascular disease as well as cancer.

Every Terawatt-hour of coal-electricity is estimated to result in 24 deaths; 18 Australians die prematurely and unnecessarily every year just from air-pollution produced by Victoria’s Hazelwood coal power plant which will officially close in March 2017.

These figures do not take into account the cost from environmental damage of greenhouse gas emission by coal, which have been estimated to add a further $6.4 billion to Australia’s bill every year (Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering 2009).

Burning more coal will also push the world closer to catastrophic climate change. According to prestigious international medical journals, climate change threatens the lives of billions of people worldwide. What price can we put on the suffering this is already causing?

Who will pay for the world-wide loss of food production and for the infrastructure damage of extreme weather events? We all will and, even more so, our children and grandchildren.

Australia has also signed the Paris Climate agreement to keep GHG emissions below 2 degrees. Without transitioning to renewable energy and cease burning fossil fuels, Australia is unlikely to keep to the agreement we have made with the world.

If we want healthy societies, real economic growth, and sustainable jobs for the future, we need to turn away from coal, plan the closure of existing coal-power generators and their coal-mines and, instead, strengthen the transition to renewable energy.

By setting the right price signals our politicians could establish what almost all the people in Port Augusta want, a concentrated solar thermal plant (CST). CST technology is a firmly grounded energy solution, which a parliamentary enquiry has already assessed and found to be viable, instead of more exposure to dust clouds and air pollution from coal-burning. The energy from free sunshine can also be stored underground and used when needed: all this with very low health costs and next to zero pollution.

The potential for jobs and growth in this sector also appears far larger than establishing a gas-fired power-plant, and jobs are exactly what the town of Port Augusta needs right now, not toxic ash clouds.

If our governments and politicians do decide to continue using fossil fuels for electricity, claiming it to be “cheaper”, then we must hold them to account by asking “who will pay for the ever-increasing health costs and suffering caused by fossil fuel burning?” Is it really cheaper or just another ash-cloud in the sky?

Dr Ingo Weber is a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia (SA)

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