Alinta Energy, an Australian utility, closed its coal fired Northern Power Station, in Port Paterson, South Australia, in May 2016, which shuts down the coal industry in the region. Alinta closed its Playford B power station in 2012 and Leigh Creek mine, which supplied coal to both power stations, in November 2015. There are many environmental justice concerns in this case including health impacts from pollution while the power stations were running, concerns that the community has been left behind now the company has closed and the contribution of burning coal to greenhouse gas emissions.
From an economic perspective, the coal industry operated for 62 years in the region [Dulaney and Reid 2016] and was established so South Australia could be self-reliant for energy and to attract investment in the area, which it achieved, historically providing 35% of South Australia’s energy and more recently 15%, and contributing millions to the economy. The power stations employed 230 people directly, and when combined with the railway and Leigh Creek mine, this number went up to 455 people in the region [Alinta 2016]. There are multiple causes of the closure. Out-dated technology is one of them. The infrastructure for South Australia’s baseload capacity is old with 25% commissioned before 1970 and 56% before 1980 [Heard et al. 2015]; electricity demand is reducing and renewable energy generation is increasing.
Some community members and particularly Doctors for the Environment (DEA) have been strong advocates for the closure of the power station, which has been linked to serious health problems for the local community including high incidences of respiratory illness in preschool children and lung cancer in adults [Doctors for the Environment, 2015]. DEA reported that the chimney stack was approximately 3km from the local town with a population of 15,000 [Doctors for the Environment, 2012]. The health impacts of living near coal fired power stations is receiving significant attention particularly as organisations such as Environmental Justice Australia highlight that over 3,000 Australians die from exposure to air pollution annually and are advocating for a National Air Pollution Control Act [Whelan 2015]. Some people in the community have worked at the power stations for decades, and are from families that worked there for three generations. The closure brings a great deal of stress and insecurity for these families, and has been described as devastating as people move away to find work. This is all within a state that is dealing with consistently high unemployment and increasing under-employment rates. Coal fired power stations are being closed and developments stalled around the world due to market forces and commitments to reduce emissions. Local communities and environment organisation are advocating for “just transitions” away from coal – a transition that supports communities and jobs, the development of clean industries, and environmental sustainability.
The broader context is that Australia is heavily dependent on coal and gas for its energy and balance sheet; Australia is the largest exporter of coal in the world; the fifth largest coal producer; and has one of the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the world [Kent and Mercer, 2006], of which energy use is 36% [Wright, 2012]. If we want to try and limit global warming to protect ecosystems and species, we need to keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground [McKibbon, 2016]. Wind energy generation capacity is increasing in South Australia and supplied 26% of the state’s energy in 2011/2012 [Australian Energy Market Operator, 2012] and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s energy sector by 25% over the last 10 years [Heard et al. 2015]. Although this could be considered to be a great success, renewable energy is highly politicised in Australia and communities and environmental non-government organisations relentlessly campaign for renewables at state and federal levels.
All cases of environmental justice in Australia start with the injustice of colonisation. Indigenous Australians have at least 40,000 years of traditional custodianship of the land, and they have sovereign rights that have never been ceded. Port Augusta was a traditional meeting place for many local Aboriginal groups, as well as groups from all over the continent, and many Aboriginal language groups continue to live in the area through complex histories and co-existence with non-Aboriginal people [ABC Radio National, 2014].