Breathe fresh burned coal particulates and oxides every day in the Sydney region

Date published: 2018-12-15

Environmental Justice Australia - EJA - has made some telling points lately about who is raking in profits from coal fired power stations, and who gets to pay for it. I don't mean pay your electricity bill, I mean pay in terms your own decreased life-span or poor health, from being one of several millions of people who are the involuntary human guinea pig smokers of coal burning power station air in the Sydney region. The above figure is from their online document "The health burden of fine particle pollution from electricity generation in NSW". Your particulate "dose mix" will depend on your local wind conditions.

I found this out with lots of detail by attending a recent local EJA presentation in Parramatta. The story of ill health from coal burning air pollution has been told many times before. From the lack of action here, it is obvious that our politicians haven't been listening seriously to this for a long time.

Both the known health impacts and the known fixes for coal-power pollution have been around for decades, and most other wealthy nations have them. Successive NSW governments and ministers have discretely failed to notice or kept quiet that we haven't got them. Now that cumulative impacts of climate change are adding to the long term health burdens of coal burn inhalation, the NSW government followed its natural historical traditions and neoliberal exploitation that started with the "Rum Corps",  by cashing in and running away. NSW government sold all coal-fired power stations to private interests for finance equivalent of a song. Now state and federal governments pretend to get upset when the corporations say "No".

EJA states that -

The new power station owners can easily afford to install the necessary pollution controls.

Ultimately, power station owners and operators are responsible for pollution control and for the health impacts of their toxic emissions. Polluters must be held responsible.

The NSW government still pretends to be the regulator of the pollution licences of the coal-fired power stations that it has sold. If only it had some meaningful or even consistent regulations.

The private interests owning our coal burners are now doing extremely well, as electricity generation prices have gone up fast. Now billions of dollars of profits are being stashed every year in private pockets for these coal burners, but we certainly aren't getting any fixes for their air pollution. Meanwhile the NSW government complains about a lack of government income and requires cuts to nearly everything. Hospital systems and health care are especially lacking in money, probably more so when they are overwhelmed with additional victims of air pollution. Didn't anybody tell the politicians that this is exactly what would happen? It has never worried the private business interests that run NSW. They escape responsibility. Both ALP and LNP went along with the privatization plans, and most likely many of them bought shares in the new privatized enterprises, and the parties picked up plenty of greased cash benefits from the allocated contract work and party donations along the way.

What about Sydney? Don't we matter? Residents like myself, in the Greater Sydney Metropolitan Region, the Central Coast, Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and Lithgow, need to go outside, work, exercise, travel and and breath all the time. No resident living around here get to choose not to breath in the fresh burned coal particulates and oxides, from any of Sydney regional five coal-fired power stations. Its like having the emissions of a number of cigarette packs per week force-burned down your wind pipe, pumped in with full complicity of your government.

Environmental Justice Australia has done the governments work for them

I was at a local presentation by EJA, for this current report.  Dr Kim Loo, came to speak first, as a hard working local general practitioner,and  also as a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. Dr Loo talked about the known extra health burdens caused by Sydney air pollution. Dr Loo sees patients with a wide variety of respiratory and cardio-vascular sicknesses.  These extra burdens of illness can develop and be made worse, and acute illnesses develop directly from air pollution outputs of coal burning power stations. Air pollution has been proven to reduce growth of babies during pregnancy. Just prior to and during the Beijing Olympics, a drastic clean-up of air pollution was mandated, requiring several coal power plants and manufacturing processes to temporarily shut down. Babies born towards the end of that period were more likely to be bigger and healthier at birth, than controls from same time period in previous and succeeding years without the pollution restrictions. Removal of air pollution can reduce our disease burdens. We don't want Sydney to end up with air and water problems like Beijing.

There is no lack of decades of established facts on air pollution to bolster our knowledge in this age of industrial enlightenment. We have many decades of measurements, economic calculations, disease statistics, from the results air monitoring stations to hospital admission statistics. Our government experts have long been in possession of lots of facts, only politics and money are the barrier to actions. Industrial Cities with Coal Fired Power Stations have been around such a long time, as to constitute human lifetime medical testing laboratories, in which we are the human guinea pigs. Politicians and Industrialists have ensured this as part of the process of maximizing growth and profits, rather than paying extra to prevent external costs.

The facts all add up very consistently, as a real world guarantee, which means that government ministers are able to have the whole story, summary with the very best academic references, on a few pieces of A4 paper. Such is the DEA online publication of a 2-page "Coal Facts Sheet", which summarizes Air Pollution and Health in the first half page, and then on to summarize the results of Climate Change and False Economics, and naturally suggests health alternatives. 

Dr Ben Ewald presented next, and he has done a very careful study, first in its kind in Australia, on estimating human mortality rates from our coal burning pollution.  This is based on real air quality monitoring data from the larger Sydney Basin, and takes advantage of the many decades of previous research all available in entire libraries of medical journals and collected health statistics on studies of human industrial guinea pigs. The chemical analysis of collected pollutants is necessary to "finger-print" the make-up and origins of the Pm2.5 in collected Sydney air.  The chemical fingerprint of a coal fired power station, can be correlated with the origins of the air mass which brought the pollutants. The yearly patterns of air movements can then predict total average exposure contributions from each power station. Having characterized the pollution, it is possible to predict an average distribution of outcomes, knowing the size of the affected population.

A summary of the results are here.  Dr Ewald explained that the slope of the relationship between mortality and various levels and kinds of Pm2.5 from air pollution have already strongly established by disease statistics collated from millions of other human guinea pigs. The figures for this are found in special sorts of peer reviewed publications , population studies of disease, journals of epidemiology. Other causation factors have been eliminated by regression analysis on the amassed collections of data.

It is then possible to say, given a particular pattern and concentration of air pollution with Pm2.5s, how many additional deaths can be ascribed to it, and its range of uncertainty.  Its a dose - response sort of thing, on the distribution of people of all ages and conditions. Sydney's pollution effects are already predicted, or have been "calibrated" by lots of other published studies on human beings. The study results are graphically and simply described in this online document,  which can be fully comprehended by the average person, unless you are of course, a politician, and then you might demand a few more decades of local data collection to be absolutely certain about the "rate" of  number of deaths and morbidity, because Sydney's people might have special powers of air pollution resistance unlike all the other millions of human guinea pigs.

How much proof is required?

We known a lot of Sydney's air pollution is bad enough to cause premature deaths, make people sick, and cause under-weight full-term births. We know these many of these pollutants come from coal-fired power stations, we know where they are, which ones are the worst polluters and who owns them now. Now we need to know how they could be vastly improved, with application of appropriate standards of regulation and technology.

And so another speaker for EJA , Dr James Whelan covered simple aspects of economic and known technology standards applied to eliminating most of the pollutant load that we are currently subjected to.  This is found towards the end of the EJA report. It is nice to know these specific international best practice standards exist. So all that needs to be done, is for politicians have to force them to be implemented, as reductions from current lax pollution licenses can be 10-fold. 

Australia’s coal-fired power stations should be required to install best practice emission controls including bag filters, Selective Catalytic Reduction, Flue Gas Desulphurisation and Activated Carbon Injection to control emissions of fine particle pollution, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide and mercury respectively in the order of 90%.

Any petition regarding any aspect of the coal industry, to the detriment of water, air or environment, presented by the public, has always been guaranteed to have nearly instant disgust, denial and dismissal by any party of government in both chambers of the NSW Parliament, which is usually mostly empty when these things are presented. The government response usually hauls up a dismissal from the most arrogant fetid coal industry politician the party has available that day. Any one who has watched this process, after months of efforts at collecting local community petition signatures would also be disgusted at real experience of democratic hopes in its usual practiced form as public eye pokery.

NSW ICAC had barely begun to scrape off many layers of games of mates, and private privilege, arranged and packed down by decades of legislative waste now solidified into transformations of muck and peat, cooked by large masses of money, to the consistency of  pure evil coal itself. NSW residents are so often pissed on from a great height by their politicians, its now practically built in to the daily formalities of this institutional charade.

The political beliefs of no harm from air pollution, have long been subject to sustained public pressure, and this has at least finally yielded to fund measurements to "prove it" , the onus of proof being placed on the general public. The presence of and ill-effects of polluted air in Sydney, of course, have always been blatantly obvious for over half a century.

What you can do right now

The Environment Protection Licences (EPLs) for the Eraring, Mount Piper and Vales Point power stations are due for review by early January 2019. There is no plan for community consultation. We are the guinea pigs, remember? See the EJA Submission on this.

What a big difference real regulation could make!

So remember, politicians have to be kicked really hard, if they are to be expected to do anything at all for the public in a hurry, before they lose their seat. To this end, please go to the EJA site here (before Christmas time 2018) and find their customizable submission form, and use the form letter to express your desire to have cleaner and healthier air to breath, and not have so much money going to the pockets of dirty-coal power station owners. Download the 2-page summary fact-sheet from EPA, and find out what the regulators have been allowing the polluters to get away with.

If you liked this work of the EJA, you might even consider to donate.

Why is coal so dirty?

Remember that coal is ancient plant life that was buried, squeezed and concentrated into hard material. Living plants contains proteins, which contain Sulphur and Nitrogen, as well as all those hydrocarbon fats and sugars. Most living biology also incorporates trace amounts of heavier elements, some of which are essential to living biology in enzyme and membrane molecules. All this became a part of the final coal result, and all of it gets burned and "released" everywhere up the stack. The carbon dioxide returns to atmosphere and oceans in large amounts, and its effects are destabilizing the entire biosphere, and so ParraCAN now exists, and this article.

What is in Pm2.5s?

Coal burning creates the smallest of particles. The most harmful, and hardest to see, detect and filter, are less than 2.5 microns (Pm2.5) Coal-fired power stations produce lots of Pm2.5 particles from all the partially burned non-carbon parts of coal such as mercury and arsenic.  Efficient burning is likely to produce smaller sizes of particulates.  Burning of coal also makes Sulphur Dioxide gas, (acid rain maker) which travels far, and forms new particulates with most anything else it meets on the way to our lungs. There are plenty of other industrial particulates for Sulphur Dioxide to combine with, from other kinds of fossil fuel burning, such as diesel engines. The other direct combustion product are the Nitrogen Oxide, which helps make the reddish-brown haze of the Sydney Horizons.

Why are humans susceptible.

Adult human lungs are in essence particulate dust filters with the surface area of  half a tennis court, 50 to 75 square metres. We need this large surface area for adequate oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. The smallest particles less than 2.5 microns (Pm2.5) , are suspended in air to coat every cell surface down to our gas exchanging alveoli.  Chemical caused inflammations and immune system reactions to foreign particulate intrusions result in the acute and chronic disease processes. Some of the smallest particles are carried internally to all other parts of our biology as they enter the blood stream through thin alveolar cell walls. Chronic inflammation causes scarring and other changes to our lungs which stops the working properly.

It seems inflammation from deposition of particulates and exchange of gases in the human lung, also transfers to the gas exchange of the human placenta during placenta and causes direct inflammation and circulation reduction effects, leading to reduced fetal growth. The effects of smoking  or passive smoking on reduced fetal growth have been well characterized, and it is not surprising that air pollution is found to have a similar dose dependent effect.

Michael Rynn
Environmental Justice Report demands Coal Burning Air Pollution Cleanup for Sydney
Environmental Justice Australia, Sydney Air Pollution is largely from power stations in the Hunter Valley, Central Cost and Lithgow.
Breath fresh burned coal particulates and oxides every day in the Sydney region