Draft Submission to DWER Climate Change Consultation
Safe & healthy communities
- What are the main climate risks for your household or your community? What can be done to manage these risks?
What are the main risks?
To consider how climate change will “exacerbate existing health burdens by increasing injury, physical and mental illness” (p. 18 Issues Paper) Government needs to more effectively address the issue of air pollution.
Every community, like our community group Cockburn Pollution Stoppers1, can be affected by air pollution from nearby industries.
In the City of Cockburn, we have the only facility licensed [Licensed Polluter] under the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA) (‘Act’) in Perth which is permitted to burn coal2 – an estimated 250,000+ tonnes annually3. Cockburn Cement Limited (CCL) produces quicklime (about 1 million tonnes per annum)4 in its Munster facility which is located 1 kilometre from the densely populated suburbs of Beeliar, Yangebup, Munster and Coogee. Toxic emissions5 remain unregulated, except for sulphur dioxide (which has a limit of 180 grams per second)6 and carbon monoxide (850 mg/m3 per hour)7.
CCL emits prodigious amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide both from the process of creating lime (CaO) by liberating carbon dioxide from limestone/shell sand (CaCO3) and from burning coal. Its emissions of this gas are reported annually to the Federal Clean Energy Regulator by its parent (Adelaide Brighton Limited) and are estimated at 1.02 – 1.14 million tonnes (see Schedule B).
The risks to public health from burning coal are well established by medical and general scientific literature and numerous studies8. These include:
(a) onset and exacerbation of a range of respiratory diseases from inhalation of particulates and toxic gases such a sulphur dioxide9 and nitrogen dioxide10
(b) the development of a range of cancers from inhalation of small particulates (commonly carrying toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium and uranium naturally occurring in coal) which pass from the lungs into the bloodstream and lodge in organs such as the kidneys11
(c) raising the risk of miscarriages, premature births and newborns with a low birth weight12
(d) passing of small carbon particulates from mothers to their unborn children via the placenta13.
The burning of coal by industry is a major contributor to the onset and exacerbation of serious illness and disease in nearby communities as well as being a major contributor to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Living near a large coal burning factory also affects the mental health of our community. Many residents of the City of Cockburn living near the CCL factory have reported the psychological stress of having to deal with odours and ‘dust’ (particulate fallout) on a daily basis14 and having to deal with the knowledge that living in the affected suburbs may lead to the onset of serious disease in the future in themselves or their children.
A recent hair test conducted on a 9 year old child living in Beeliar found elevated levels of heavy metals in coal burnt at the CCL factory15. The child’s parents were so distressed they sold their home and moved out of the area, like many others who cannot cope with the constant stress of living in the wind shadow of a large coal burning factory.
What can be done to manage these risks?
Managing risks posed by industries producing greenhouse and other toxic gases requires more extensive and intensive Government intervention and regulation of Licensed Polluters.
Four suggestions are proffered:
- Change in Government policy direction away from the past 40 years of ‘neo-liberalism’ philosophy which promotes industry self-regulation/”cutting red tape” often at the expense of public health and the public interest in having safe and livable communities and a stable climate.
Examples in the recent past include:
- allowing Licensed Polluters to select, install, calibrate and operate their own pollution monitors and controls16 and to ‘self-report’ their pollution using their own paid ‘experts’ without rigorous independent government control, supervision and auditing of their activities17
- A continuing drift away from the legislative objects and intent of the EP which are directed at protecting the environment towards allowing Licensed Polluters to influence what and how environmental controls are imposed or relaxed18
- Failing to exercise prosecutorial powers under the Act19
- Mandate the transition of Licensed Polluters away from fossil fuel sources to renewable energy sources; a transition over time to minimise disruption to the WA economy and careful assessment of pollution abatement measures to avoid imposing unsustainable capital costs on Licensed Polluters.
This may be done by the following:
- All Licensed Polluters to stop burning coal and diesel and immediately transition to using the least polluting alternative energy source which is available at or near each of their licensed facilities and which can be adopted without imposing unsustainable capital costs on the Licensed Polluter
- If no less polluting alternative fuel source is available (or if the Licensed Polluter fails to make the transition by the mandated time) the Licensed Polluter will pay a ‘pollution levy level A’
- ‘Pollution levy level A’ creates a commercial incentive to transition to a less polluting energy source by, for example, setting the levy as the difference between the Licensed Polluter’s annual cost of buying coal or diesel and the cost of buying the equivalent energy units in the form of a less polluting source like natural gas (or electricity, if practicable) plus a further specified percentage of the cost difference (say 10%), until the Licensed Polluter has transitioned to the less polluting alternative energy source.
- All oil and gas producers in WA (and Licensed Polluters) extracting or burning natural gas to comply with a regime for monitoring and eliminating ‘fugitive’ gas leaks, supported by an audit system of independent experts appointed by government
- All oil and gas producers in WA (and Licensed Polluters) to pay a ‘pollution levy level B’ to ensure polluters pay the full economic cost of their pollution
- ‘Pollution levy level B’ creates a commercial incentive to reduce fugitive gas emissions by, for example, setting the levy as the annual cost to Government of taking alternative abatement action to offset the same quantity of ‘fugitive’ gas [i.e. carbon dioxide equivalent] released into the environment plus a further percentage (say 10%) of those costs.
- Mandate that the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER):
- frequently and independently monitor toxic substances emitted by Licensed Polluters at source and in adjacent residential areas [Monitoring]
- use the best available scientific instruments and techniques, including portable gas chromatography units, for Monitoring
- arrange scientific analysis of Monitoring activities [Results] and regularly report Results to the public
- regularly consult with the Department of Health for a written assessment of potential implications for human health of the Results
- Mandate that the Department of Health review the Results and recommend to DWER suggested amendments to each Licensed Polluter’s licence under the Act to minimise potential risk to human health which may be posed by the Results.
- What are your biggest concerns about Western Australia’s future climate?
Meteorological and other records confirm that the Southwest Land Division of WA is becoming hotter and drier and will continue to be impacted by climate change into the future.20
In the City of Cockburn there are several geographical features such as the Beeliar Wetlands and adjoining native vegetation reserves which keep certain suburbs in the City (e.g. Beeliar) noticeably cooler than suburbs in which trees and wetlands have been wholly replaced by industrial, commercial and residential infrastructure. These intensively developed areas will, over time, become less viable for living and working as ambient temperatures increase, unless additional electrical energy is generated to keep the internal areas of this infrastructure at a comfortable temperature. Rather than use additional energy for this purpose, an alternative is to use more ‘natural’ means.
Government could implement innovative and intensive tree planting programs in all suburban areas in the South West Land Division to maximise shade cover of open spaces and thereby mitigate ambient temperature increases. Such a strategy can ameliorate the risks of heat stress and heat related illnesses in the community without using additional energy to install and operate air-conditioning systems. For example, in the City of Cockburn, there has been some tree-planting activity by the local government authority but a great deal more could be done if the State Government provides additional funding for this purpose and it mandates that every commercial and industrial site also must set aside a specified percentage of that site for ‘climate amelioration’ by retaining native vegetation, rehabilitating the designated proportion of the site by planting native trees and vegetation or using innovative techniques to increase vegetation cover (e.g. vertical gardens on walls and rooftop gardens).
Increasing the number of trees in the environment has the added benefit that they also act as a ‘carbon sink’ removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Another concern about the drying climate in the South West Land Division of WA is Perth’s increasing reliance upon groundwater as a source of its drinking water.
Contaminated drinking water can become a serious public health issue.
For example, in the City of Cockburn (which has significant industrial/commercial zoned areas) runoff of contaminated water from these areas can enter local groundwater and potentially pollute the water supply upon which Perth is increasingly reliant.
One example is CCL’s Munster factory, which generates a range of toxic substances including heavy metals. There is some evidence that runoff which enters artificial lakes on site (and thus the local groundwater) contains toxic elements such as arsenic, chromium and mercury.21 Other substances such as aluminium, manganese, sulphur and titanium are also found in this toxic cocktail. Inadequate supervision and regulation by Government of Licensed Polluters such as CCL allows contaminated runoff to enter local groundwater and, if left inadequately regulated, has the potential to adversely affect an increasingly important source of Perth water supply22.
The Environmental Protection Authority should be reinstated as the legal and administrative ‘driver’ and manager of environmental protection in Western Australia rather than licensing and regulatory arms of the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation. The interests of certain large corporate Licensed Polluters have been allowed to prevail over the health, welfare and amenity of the human community. For example, in the case of Cockburn Cement Limited in Munster, the Environmental Protection Authority has been legally prevented since 2010 from conducting an environmental assessment of its activities23.
Climate change poses an existential threat to humankind and the time is long overdue for corporate interests to be subjugated to the extent necessary to protect the human community’s health and environment and to ensure a stable climate.
- What can be done to ensure our community is better prepared for possible climate impacts?
Pollution of our air, ground and water is the fundamental cause of ongoing global temperature rises since industrial times.
Removal and deactivation of pollutants, especially airborne pollutants, is the means to mitigate climate change.
More effective regulation of all industrial activity which emits toxic substances (including greenhouse gases) is what Government can do to limit the impact of climate change.
In Western Australia, that regulation is the Act and it provides the only legislative guidance needed to prepare our community for possible climate change.
The first four objects and principles of the Act set out the relevant elements which need to be considered by Government and to be implemented by DWER.
“Section 4A. Object and principles of the Act
- The precautionary principle
Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. In the application of the precautionary principle, decisions should be guided by –
(a) careful evaluation to avoid, where practicable, serious or irreversible damage to the environment; and
(b) an assessment of risk-weighted consequences of various options.*
- The principle of intergenerational equity
The present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment is maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations.
- The principle of the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity
Conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity should be a fundamental consideration.
- Principles relating to improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms
(1) Environmental factors should be included in the valuation of assets and services.
(2) The polluter pays principle – those who generate pollution and waste should bear the cost of abatement, avoidance or abatement.”
*In making “an assessment of risk-weighted consequences of various options” when the consequence of not adequately addressing climate change is an existential threat to humankind, it seems clear that that risk warrants the most stringent measures being taken so that Licensed Polluters should at last be required to bear the full economic cost of their polluting activities.
Government needs to address climate change by altering its focus from simply ‘regulation’ of polluters to environmental protection in the interests of the health, welfare and safety of the human community.