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Reducing mercury emissions from Australian coal-fired power stations

Darren Sinclair has been part of a trans-disciplinary, cross university research project investigating mercury emissions from Australian coal fired power stations. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that can harm animal life. When coal is burnt, it releases mercury into the atmosphere, which then deposits into surrounding countryside and ends up in bodies of water such as lakes and rivers where it can enter the food chain. Once it enters the environment, it does not break down.

As part of this research, core samples were extracted from lakes and bogs in the Hunter Valley and Latrobe Valley regions of NSW and Victoria, both close to nearby coal fired power stations. After analysis, it was found that the level of mercury pollution in the Latrobe Valley was 10 times higher than that in the Hunter Valley. Why is that? A key reason is that NSW has historically had stricter pollution control regulations than Victoria. NSW regulations required the use of ‘bag filters’ to trap mercury and other particles so they cannot enter the atmosphere. In contrast, not only do Victorian power stations burn brown coal, which has higher concentrations of mercury than black coal used in NSW, but Victorian regulations have not historically placed specific limits on mercury emissions, and bag filters are not in use. This research demonstrates the power of environmental regulations to achieve environmental benefits on the ground.

In 2021, the Victorian Government announced changes to the regulatory licence conditions for coal fired power stations so that, for the first time, they included limits on mercury emissions (although set at overly generous levels and falling short of mandatory control technologies). And the Australian Government has since ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury – this obliges state and federal governments to develop and implement a strategy to reduce mercury emissions, including from coal-fired power stations across Australia. Overall, the release of mercury emissions from coal fired power stations is another reason to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels towards clean energy solutions.

Pictured above: Darren Sinclair, mercury testing at Lake Glenbawn and Barrington Tops.


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