Saturday, 26 July 2014

Latrobe Brown Coal

How long will a Morwell man live? What chance does a Morwell woman have of dying of cancer? What health impacts will a Morwell child experience? Will anyone be brought to account?

Recently our Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey, attacked wind farms on the Lake George escarpment. This surprised me. So I had a closer look at the wind farms and, last week, I traveled to the Latrobe Valley to look at one of the alternatives used to produce energy in this country – brown coal. 

Brown coal (high moisture content coal) is mined and burnt in the Latrobe Valley to produce cheap but dirty electricity. Brown coal produces a number of contaminants – CO2, ash, mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals. Studies in the US and Canada attribute a significant number of deaths each year from lung cancer to coal fired power plants. 

Low Yang Power Station - Latrobe Valley
The US Energy Information Administration database paints a disturbing picture about reliance on brown coal - Victorians are one of the highest polluting populations on the planet – a situation unlikely to change any time soon. When all coal (black and brown coal) is taken into account and all uses (internal and export) it ranks Australia as contributing 40 tons of CO2 per person – double that of any other nation. However, within Australia, the debate is often confined to internal consumption of coal – and this is generally followed by a reference to our small population and the conclusion that it will be ok because Australia does not contribute much to world pollution.  That may be the case, but that is scant comfort to the people of the Latrobe Valley.

This year, a brown mine caught fire in the Latrobe Valley and burnt for months before local anger erupted and the fire was finally contained. During the period, criticism was leveled at the health response. Eventually people in the town of Morwell were given advice and some evacuated. Arguments are now focused on capping the fire source. An inquiry is now underway into the disaster.

The risk equation for people in the Latrobe Valley is complex. It is beset by a basic lack of data about the health consequences of the people of the region. 

I sometimes disagree with Joe Hockey. This is one of those occasions.

Looking towards the town of Morwell and the Hazelwood Power Plant from Tyers Lookout.  Hazelwood Power Station was listed as the least carbon efficient power station in the OECD in a 2005 report.

Low Yang Power Station - Latrobe Valley

Hazelwood and Yallourn Power Stations - Latrobe Valley

On 1st August 2014 came the unwelcome news that the fire had reignited - see La Trobe Express report.  While contained, hotspots remain. The fire site needs to be capped.

Peter Quinton
July 2014

No comments: