Original article published at nofibs.com.au
Over 300 health professionals have signed an open letter calling on the Victorian Premier to urgently nominate a time frame for closing down the harmful coal-fired power plants in the Latrobe Valley, and developing a transition plan for the local community.
The letter was delivered to Parliament on Tuesday 5th April 2016. The Parliamentary Secretary for Health Mary-Anne Thomas accepted the letter on the Premier’s behalf.
The Latrobe Valley’s four ageing power plants need to be retired, and a plan needs to be put into place to ensure a just and healthy transition away from the coal industry for the local communities, to protect their future health and economic prosperity. (See my report June 2015 report: Latrobe Valley: Finding Hope in #Morwell at #climate ground zero).
The letter was organised by medical advocacy organisations Doctors for the Environment Australia, the Climate and Health Alliance, and Healthy Futures.
We know that pollution from coal burning causes cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases, as well as lung cancers. It also contributes to the reduced life expectancy of residents in the Latrobe Valley compared with those in other regions in Gippsland, and Victoria overall. Children in the Latrobe Valley are below the state average in key areas of health, according to health professionals. (See Doctors for the Environment detailed submission (PDF) to the Hazelwood Coal Mine Fire Inquiry 2015)
These health harms also place pressure on the Victorian public purse. Hazelwood incurs health and social costs estimated to be around $900 million per year.
Coal is also a major contributor to climate change. We already see these impacts through increase in temperatures resulting in extreme heat events and heat waves and devastating bushfires.
The health professionals stress that there are many good alternatives to coal-fired power, and what is needed is a planned transition to clean energy such as solar and wind power which will improve health and job prospects of locals.
Professor Peter Brooks articulated in a media statement, “We must stick to pledges made in Paris 2015 to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions - Victoria has probably already used up its carbon budget to keep global warming less than 1.5 degree C, while Australia’s emissions are continuing to increase."
“Failure to act on our outdated coal industry is unconscionable, given the harm it has on public health. Doctors, nurses and other health professionals have a duty of care to our patients and we must speak out against coal much like we did in the anti-tobacco campaign.“
Associate Professor Grant Blashki said in the associated media statement, “Australia is like a grumpy old smoker who refuses to give up even as the price of cigarettes goes up and up- the real price of coal when the health costs are included is enormous and growing. Overseas, many places are switching off these polluting plants. Last year, the UK government announced it was closing all coal-fired electricity plants by 2025. Scotland burnt its last supplies of coal last week.”
Professor Rob Moodie, Director of Teaching and Learning at the Melbourne School of Population Health, said in the media statement, "The Victorian Government has a golden opportunity to lock in better health outcomes for people in the Latrobe Valley. Residents of the Valley have suffered enough from the health impacts of coal pollution. As a former Minister for Health, Premier Andrews understands the need to create a healthier future, as well as an economically brighter future for those in the Valley."
Open Letter to Premier Andrews and relevant Ministers
To the Honourable Premier Andrews, Health Minister Hennessy, Environment and Climate Change Minister Neville and Energy Minister D’Ambrosio,
As health professionals, we write to request that the Victorian Government’s forthcoming Renewable Energy Action Plan include steps to start retiring Victoria’s four coal-fired power stations and ensure a just and healthy transition away from coal for the communities adjacent to them, and for those economically dependent on them.
We acknowledge and echo previous calls by prominent health groups such as the Victorian branch of the Australian and Nursing and Midwifery Federation, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Doctors for the Environment Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance for a transition away from coal for the communities of the Latrobe Valley on health grounds [1-4].
Coal-fired power generation carries unacceptable health costs for local communities. Pollution from coal burning causes cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases, as well as lung cancers . These illnesses increase pressure on an already stretched health system and culminate in deaths - a study last year from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government estimated that pollution from the Hazelwood power station alone causes 18 deaths per year in Gippsland, accounting for 1% of all deaths in the region . The local health impacts of coal-fired electricity were also tragically highlighted in 2014 by the Hazelwood Mine Fire, which likely contributed to increased deaths in the local community as recently concluded by the Mine Fire Inquiry .
Beyond its immediate health impacts, coal-fired electricity also contributes significantly to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases. Climate change threatens the health of Australians and the global community by increasing the frequency and severity of heatwaves and other extreme weather events, exacerbating droughts, decreasing food production and increasing the spread of infectious diseases - all of which can have physical, social and mental health impacts . On a global scale, climate change has been identified as our greatest health threat , and action on climate change as our greatest health opportunity . It is imperative that Australians, including Victorians, act rapidly to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, mitigate climate change and thereby protect health.
We applaud the Victorian Government’s commitments to “positioning Victoria as a leader in climate change”  and “rebuilding Victoria’s reputation as the nation’s leader for renewable energy” . We support ambitious renewable energy targets for 2020 and 2025 for Victoria as these will help deliver an energy sector that is cleaner and more conducive to good health. However, the Government has also acknowledged in its Renewable Energy Roadmap that the ongoing operation of emission-intensive generators has inhibited investment in renewable energy . We therefore urge the Government to plan for the closure of Victoria’s coal-fired power stations and the expansion of renewable energy capacity simultaneously.
The unplanned closure of coal-fired power stations could itself have detrimental local health impacts through loss of jobs and economic and social disruption. We therefore support the recommendation of the Board of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry that the State now work with the Latrobe Valley community to develop a plan to transition away from coal “as an important contribution to improving the health of the Latrobe Valley” .
Latrobe Valley communities deserve a healthier environment, and require urgent support to start transitioning their economies away from current sources of dangerous pollution. Victoria must also address climate change, and hence protect health, by planning to end our dependence on emissions-intensive generators and enable investment in renewable energy. As health professionals concerned for the health of our patients and the wider community, we therefore call on the Victorian Government to include in its forthcoming Renewable Energy Action Plan steps to accelerate the phase-out of Victoria’s coal-fired power stations in a planned and economically just fashion.
- Much of the text was adapted from the Doctors for the Environment media release, 5 April 2016 - Media release: Health practitioners call for imminent phase out of coal-fired power stations
- Open letter and list of signatures at Healthy Futures
- See my storify of the delivery of the open letter to Parliament - Doctors prescribe LaTrobe Valley #coal closure for our health and a safe #climate
- Lead image by CAHA via twitter