Airborne mercury pollution from coal-fired power stations in Victoria’s Latrobe valley increased 37% in just 12 months, according to an annual national survey of toxic emissions.
The mercury output from Loy Yang B power station alone more than doubled to 831kg in 2016-2017, an increase of 123% over five years.
The brown coal burning power station produced more than 640 times the airborne mercury pollution of Earing power station near Newcastle, New South Wales.
Earing, Australia’s largest coal-fired power station, produces three times the energy of Loy Yang B power station but reported just 1.3kg of airborne mercury pollution in 2016-17, a reduction of 97% over the past five years.
The pollution gap between the two power stations is an example of the failure of state-based regulators to properly and consistently control air pollution, Environmental Justice Australia researcher Dr James Whelan said.
Whelan released the pollution figures on Tuesday, after spending four days analysing the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) data released last week.
The NPI records the self-reported estimated pollution levels of 93 toxic substances, with the intention of providing communities with more information about local air quality. It is now in its 20th year.
Whelan said that the fact that levels of many pollutants had either increased or remained stable in that time showed that the NPI was not working as intended.
“The intention of the NPI is that you will actually control air pollution,” he told Guardian Australia. “There’s no excuse not to control it.”
Whelan said power stations in Australia should be updated with emission control technology, which could reduce the release of toxins by up to 90%. A report by EJA last August found that the pollution levels of Australian coal-fired power stations would be illegal in the US, Europe and China.
EJA is calling for a national air pollution monitoring body, similar to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
“We can’t leave something as important as air pollution control to the state governments that consistently see increases and do little about it,” Whelan said.
Latrobe valley’s four coal-fired power stations produced more than 2,000kg of airborne mercury pollution in 2016-17, more than the power stations of any other state or territory.
The total mercury pollution for NSW was 151.1kg, down 45% in the past 12 months. Outside of Victoria, the highest mercury polluter was Millmerran power station, an 850 megawatt generator in Queensland’s Darling Downs region.
Loy Yang B is one of the five dirtiest coal-fired power stations in the country. Three more – AGL Loy Yang, Yallorn and the recently closed Hazelwood – are also in the Latrobe valley.
Together they were responsible for 97.4% of the valley’s fine particle or PM2.5 emissions and 94% of its PM10 emissions, as well as 99% of sulfur dioxide and nitrous dioxide pollution.
Nationally the data showed a 31% reduction in PM2.5 emissions from electricity generation between 2011-12 and 2016-17, and a 12% reduction in fine particle pollution from industry sources.
The OECD estimates that PM2.5 emissions are responsible for about 740 preventable deaths in Australia each year.
Coal-fired power stations were responsible for 49% of all nitrous dioxide emissions in Australia in 2016-17 and 54% of sulfur dioxide emissions.
The 2018 NPI data contains estimates of pollution from either the 2016-2017 financial year or the 2017 calendar year, so figures for the Latrobe valley do not show the impact of the closure of the Hazelwood power station.
Hazelwood, Victoria’s oldest and highest-emitting power station, shut down in March 2017.
“[The 2019 data] will show that there will be a really significant reduction in the toxic pollutant levels in the Latrobe valley,” Whelan said.