Hazelwood, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, was noted for being the most carbon polluting coal-fired power station in Australia. The plant ceased operations in March – five months after majority owner, Engie, announced the decision to close when it became clear that it could not meet the estimated $400 million to maintain health and safety standards ordered by WorkSafe Victoria.
What has this closure meant for the health of residents of the Latrobe Valley?
Hazelwood over its lifetime of 53 years burnt 730 million tonnes of brown coal with emissions of sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, mercury, volatile compounds and small particles. These particulates are divided into two groups, tiny particles less than 2.5 micron in diameter and slightly larger ones up to 10 micron. The latter accumulate in airways to cause symptoms of respiratory irritation such as cough, wheeze and asthma while the smaller particles can enter the circulation and have been implicated in heart and vascular disease, lung cancer, and neurological disorders. Even short exposures to particulate matter (a few hours to weeks) can trigger cardiovascular deaths and illness, while longer-term exposure greatly increases the risk for cardiovascular mortality and reduces life expectancy by several months to a few years.
Monitoring of these compounds has not been performed diligently over the years but has been stepped up since the coalmine fire of 2014. The incidence of health effects has also been poorly documented although it is known that residents of the Latrobe Valley have a reduced lifespan of several years, both for males and females, compared with those in other regions in Gippsland and with Victorians in general. However, there are confounding factors which could influence these figures such as smoking and social status.
The retirement of Hazelwood is a step in the right direction.
Do emissions from all the existing coal-fired power stations in the Latrobe Valley adversely impact other communities? This question is difficult to answer without careful studies but it has been found that pollutants from power plants can travel a long way. A CSIRO study has found half the sulfates in Sydney air could be traced back to coalmines up to 140km away.
Health effects come at a cost to society. The costs are not covered by the power station operators or the purchasers of electricity but are subsumed by the country’s healthcare budget. These healthcare costs include “externalities”, such as industry subsidies and social costs.
The healthcare costs from Hazelwood emissions alone are estimated at $900 million per year while the air pollution health cost of coal burning in Australia is estimated at $2.6 billion annually. If greenhouse gas damage was included, the true price of coalfired electricity would be close to double the nominated amount. On a larger scale, the cost to the world’s economies from insufficient action on carbon emissions leading to run-away global warming will be much greater than the cost of action taken now. No country will be immune from the costs of damage repair and adaptation.
But there is a cost to be paid in closing down power stations as well. For Hazelwood, the mine site rehabilitation could cost over $700 million in addition to redundancy costs. As well, the company is facing charges by WorkSafe for safety breaches during the mine-fire in 2014 and prosecutions by EPA Victoria are also a possibility. Federal and state governments are contributing to support workers in transferring to other mine sites and are providing funds for the community to help start-up new projects.
Hazelwood workers and their families and communities deserve a fair go.
Disenchantment with the power companies and the so-called loss of “social licence” is not new – it began when the power industry was privatised in Victoria in 1996 and 6000 workers lost their jobs through restructuring. Over the subsequent 10 years, there has been high unemployment (currently 9%), a reduced population as people moved away from the area, and depressed local business. Because of fewer job opportunities and low family incomes, there is early school leaving and a high incidence of sole parent families.
In addition, there has been difficulty attracting new businesses, or relocating businesses to the area given the dominance of the power industry which may have prevented smaller entrepreneurial businesses from emerging.
Matters were not helped by the coalmine fire in 2014 which burned for 45 days and caused much physical and mental suffering of local residents and possibly contributed to up to 11 extra deaths. The residents of nearby Morwell in particular suffered from the effects of smoke inhalation and from the frustration of being unable to convince the company and the State Government of their plight at the time. Monitoring of pollutants was lacking but when measurement of carbon monoxide was commenced some five days into the fire, levels were exceedingly high. As a result of the second coalmine fire Inquiry, longterm monitoring of affected residents has been promised.
Medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has often highlighted the risks to communities from coal-fired power, not only in the Latrobe Valley but across Australia. DEA has stated that closing power stations should be a public health priority and has called on governments to make an urgent phased closure of power stations within the next decade.
How this can be achieved without government intervention when many are privately owned and have supply contracts is unclear. Fortunately the price of power from renewable sources is on parity with that from coal and will soon be cheaper, even without an impost on coal for the externalities mentioned above.
A transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as sun and wind will lead to significant, immediate and long-term local community health and public health cost benefits.
Dr John Iser is the Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia