Need benchmarks to fix deteriorating air quality in Upper Hunter

A face to face meeting between senior state bureaucrats and community advocates to discuss worsening air pollution in the Upper Hunter highlighted the need for a regional plan to improve air quality.

The meeting took place last week in Sydney involving senior staff from the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and representatives from Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) and Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association’s president John Krey.

EJA’s reseacher James Whelan  said the frustrating message to come out of the meeting was the fact there was no benchmarks for environmental management in the Upper Hunter and no plans to develop benchmarks which may produce improved air quality.

“With 80 air quality alerts in a month something is seriously wrong with the existing environmental management and unless action is taken immediately the situation will deteriorate,” he said.

Dr Whelan said they presented photographs at the meeting showing recent mine blast plumes that had left the mine site and travelled over surrounding districts.

We were told those photographs, of the blast plumes, cannot be submitted as evidence to the EPA and that their inspectors must attend the scene to gather evidence, he said.

“Well by the time they arrive its two hours after the event and the evidence has probably disappeared. We need increased surveillance and much higher fines as the existing $15,000 is totally inadequate,” he said. 

Commenting on the meeting Mr Krey said his organisation hoped the EPA would understand the evidence showed their Dust Stop program was not working.

The Dust Stop program started in 2012 requires all NSW open cut coal mines to implement best practice measures to significantly reduce their dust emissions

But Mr Krey said PM10 particulate pollution in the Upper Hunter had increased each of the last three years.

“In fact PM10 levels increased two per cent last year which clearly shows Dust Stop is not working,” he said.

“During the meeting we were told well without Dust Stop the situation could be worse – but communities living near open cut mines actually want the program to reduce dust not simply reduce the increase in the rate of pollution,” said a frustrated Mr Krey.

“We are looking for the EPA and the mining companies to ensure dust pollution is reduced as we now live in the highest polluted area of the state. Not something to be proud of.”

On the pollution coming from the state’s coal fired power station  the EPA has recommended stricter and more consistent pollution licences  following a review of power station emissions.

The report confirms the concerns raised in EJA’s complaint to the EPA and recommends sweeping changes to the Environment Protection Licences (EPLs) held by electricity generators.

The EPA proposes standardised EPLs so all five power stations have more consistent emission limits and obligations, as well as more consistent arrangements for monitoring and reporting air pollution.

“To date there has been no rhyme or reason to the EPA’s approach to licencing toxic pollution from power stations,” said  Dr  Whelan.

“The power stations all have very different emission limits and all their licence limits are much weaker than those set by environmental regulators in the United States, Europe and China.

“Liddell has twice the sulfur limit of Eraring or Vales Point, suggesting these limits are set for available coal, not to protect health or the environment.

“By implementing the recommendations in this report, the EPA will begin to hold power generators to account for the toxic pollution they emit and provide some impetus for pollution control.”