Aberthaw power station is killing us and blighting the lives of future generations, the Welsh government is not taking urgent action, and this deadly plant is subsidised from the public purse. These were the messages from the more than 150 protesters who gathered at Aberthaw on Saturday 28th January to demand the closure of the coal-fired plant. The assembled crowd included people from all over Wales and England, including a small party from Ceredigion who arrived with a large and spectacular red dragon. Although there was a substantial police presence, the protest was good-natured and family-friendly.
In September last year, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that RWE’s coal-fired plant had repeatedly exceeded limits on toxic nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. A report by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace estimates that ‘pollution from Aberthaw is responsible for curtailing the lives of 67 people in Wales every year’. Plumes of NOx and particle pollution from the plant also spread over swathes of southern England, Ireland and as far as France, resulting in 400 premature deaths per year. The pollution also causes asthma, bronchitis and low birth-weight in babies. The report calculates that the annual cost of the premature deaths from Aberthaw’s pollution is almost £38m pounds in Wales and £226.4m in total. Yet, as recently as January 2016, RWE received a public subsidy of £27m to continue operating the plant.
At its full 1.55 Gigawatts (GW) output capacity, RWE’s Aberthaw produces enough electricity for 1.5 million households, more than enough to supply all 1.3 million household in Wales. However, Aberthaw is a terribly outmoded coal-fired power station that also produces toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx), harmful particulates and carbon dioxide which contributes to climate change. The ECJ ordered the UK government to pay the European Commission’s legal costs because it had failed to enforce pollution limits on the power station.
The cost of killing
Measured in March 2015, Aberthaw power station emitted more than twice the limit of NOx as set out in the Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD). The report from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace analysed the air quality and health impacts of the plant’s pollution. Head of science, policy and research at Friends of the Earth, Mike Childs, said: ‘The pollution from Aberthaw is unacceptable for the people near the power station in south Wales, but detrimental effects are felt as far away as Exeter, Bristol, Swindon and Bournemouth. We need a full and permanent closure.’
Apart from the cost in human grief and suffering, these fatalities cost society an estimated £226.4m each year. Further costs are associated with ill health caused by the pollution, which includes 195,000 sick days per year, 3,400 cases of childhood asthma symptoms, 260 cases of bronchitis in children, 290 hospital admissions and 20 babies born with low birth-weight. Friends of the Earth Cymru have previously calculated that Aberthaw costs society as much as £950 million in environmental and health costs every year. The subsidy of £27m to Aberthaw was money taken from people’s electricity bill payments. A spokesperson for Reclaim the Power, one of the organisers of Saturday’s protest, said, ‘Imagine the reaction of certain British newspapers if that subsidy had been paid to a windfarm!’
In a statement Friends of the Earth Cymru said: ‘This one power station has prematurely ended the lives of thousands of people through its polluting emissions. To rub salt into the wound, Aberthaw is busily hoovering up tens of millions of pounds from electricity bill-payers in order to stay open. We’re all literally paying this power station to churn out polluting gases for years to come. It’s a clear demonstration of the critical importance of the UK retaining its environmental legislation once we leave the European Union. The gargantuan scale of the pollution, the needless curtailing of the lives of hundreds of people every year, and the damage caused to our children’s lungs leave us with one course of action: Aberthaw power station must close.’
Greenpeace UK air pollution campaigner Areeba Hamid added: ‘The pollution from this coal plant is exacerbating a major public health crisis already affecting tens of thousands of people across the UK. EU air quality rules are among the most effective tools to put pressure on government to act on the problem, but Brexit is now putting them at risk. Our government has a duty to ensure its citizens are not forced to breathe illegal levels of air pollution. Ministers should act swiftly to put in place a new Clean Air Act to tackle air pollution and protect our health and that of our children.’
Just last week, Defra warned the public that air pollution levels had reached ‘high’ or ‘very high’ in eight regions across the UK. The ministry told people with lung and heart problems, as well as ‘older people’, to avoid ‘strenuous physical activity’. Air pollution in the UK is blamed for the premature deaths of around 40,000 people every year. One of the protesters from Ceredigion told the Herald: ‘This is ‘a staggering and wholly unacceptable number.’ Close on the heels of Defra’s warning, Steve Holliday, former boss of National Grid, assured the public that the UK has enough energy capacity to meet demand even on the coldest winter days. By Mr Holliday’s reckoning, the UK would not experience the widespread blackouts this year that a report by the British Infrastructure Group predicted at the end of 2016. Mr Holliday’s optimism is based upon back-up from old coal power plants like Aberthaw that are long past their scrap-by dates. Heavily subsidised by the electricity bill-payer, these plants can be used to keep the lights on, but at what cost to public health?
The coal connection and climate change
Aberthaw burns around 35,000 tonnes of coal every week. The bulk of this coal comes from opencast mines in Wales, notably the controversial FFos-y-Fran near Merthyr Tydfil, the largest opencast coalmine in the UK. FFos-y-Fran was established in 2007 under the risible pretext of being a land reclamation scheme. Despite legislation decreeing a 500 metre boundary, the mine is sited just 36 metres from some people’s homes, which are despoiled daily by dust and noise. The plight of people in Merthyr Tydfil affected by the mine is of continuing national and international concern. Last week the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, visited people in Merthyr whose lives are negatively impacted by the mine. He went on to consult with the Welsh government about the issues.
In his end of visit statement, under the heading ‘domestic governance’, Baskut Tuncak reported that: ‘In addition to the lack of resources, there is lack of structured cooperation between relevant authorities and limited channels of accountability and oversight. For example, a community in Merthyr Tydfil has objected to the creation and ongoing operation of the Ffos-y-Fran opencast coalmine. Winds are alleged to blow to the community from the mine 40-60% of the time. Instead of a safe buffer zone between the mine and homes, due to legislative loopholes some residents live only a few dozen meters from the operation’s fence-line. A prevalence of childhood asthma and cancer clusters was alleged among the community. The Welsh government appears to attribute rates of disease and disability in the community to unhealthy habits, and shifts responsibility for investigation to the company and other levels of government. The community tried to enforce their rights through the planning process, repeatedly through the UK courts, through the European Parliament, and the Aarhus Convention, to which the UK is party. Meanwhile, a massive expansion of the coal mine has been proposed.’
If it continues to operate, FFos-y-Fran is scheduled to mine 11 million tonnes of coal by 2025. If this is burned in power stations like Aberthaw, it will emit around 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in addition to the more immediately deadly nitrogen dioxide and particulates. The Climate Change Act of 2008 commits the UK to reducing carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050, based on 1990 levels. According to the network Reclaim the Power, continuing to mine coal from Ffos-y-Fran and burn it in Aberthaw cannot be reconciled with this target. RWE have reportedly experimented with a pilot-scale carbon capture and storage facility at Aberthaw but no such technology has been scaled up for the power station.
Demanding the closure of Aberthaw, an end to coal and the creation of green jobs, Saturday’s demonstration was co-organised by Reclaim the Power, the Coal Action Network and Bristol Rising Tide. The action was taken in solidarity with communities blighted by opencast coal mines and in, in particular, the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), which campaigns on environmental issues in the Merthyr Tydfil area. The organisers will be writing to Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, to try to find common ground on Aberthaw. Despite its other efforts to promote a ‘just transition to a low-carbon economy’, Unite has not yet joined the campaign to close Aberthaw. In the recent past, moreover, Unite has supported both existing and proposed new opencast coal mines in Wales.
Chris Austin of UVAG told the Herald: ‘The symbiotic relationship between Aberthaw and opencast coalmines in the South Wales valleys is the reason that in 2017 we are still suffering the awful impacts of opencast coalmining. Cardiff, the Vale and the near South West of England are suffering toxic fallout from this ancient power station. People are suffering, and people are dying - someone has to break this cycle! The Welsh government has to take the blinkers off and look to the future: Protect communities from the effects of opencast mining and the burning of coal and provide the workers with alternate employment. This dinosaur of a power station has to close immediately.’
Anne Harris from the Coal Action Network spoke to the Herald: ‘RWE npower, who own Aberthaw power station, said last spring that they may be changing from burning coal from South Wales to importing coal. Imported coal is most likely to come from Russia or Colombia, the main countries exporting to the UK at present and who supply the other eight coal-fired power stations across the UK. In Russia and Colombia, grave human rights abuses are occurring as indigenous people are being driven from their lands by opencast mining. Dust from expansive opencast coal mines is covering their food growing areas and polluting their water supplies. Mining coal in Wales is noisy, dirty and barbaric. Let's not shift those problems oversees, but take responsibility and close this power station down. RWE npower and the government need to work with trade unions and workers to create a plan for a transition to the green economy for their highly skilled workers.’
A Cardiff spokesperson for Reclaim the Power, Patrick Lanham, told the Herald: ‘We were leafleting in St Athan last week and had lots of positive feedback from local people. Excellent, one said, it's about time that horrific eyesore was shut. We’ve had no comment from RWE on the demo. Aberthaw Power Station emits eight point five million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually and that's sufficient reason for it to be closed. But the air pollution caused by burning coal at Aberthaw that is choking and killing residents in Barry Cardiff, Swansea, Bristol and beyond means that it must shut now!'
The buck stops here, eventually!
Aberthaw was given an exemption from LCPD pollutant levels to allow it to burn low volatility coal from South Wales because that coal is difficult to ignite and requires the use of a chemical catalyst or ‘accelerant’, which means that burning produces more NOx. Following the ECJ ruling, RWE made a statement claiming that they would be fitting low NOx boilers and would then burn high-volatility coal. A spokesman for the company said that the plant could provide electricity competitively. He added that Aberthaw would operate at reduced generation levels this year to ensure that it can stay within its Environmental Permit. RWE claim that they are investing £5m in technology that will ‘significantly lower’ the power station's NOx emissions.
UVAG’s Chris Austin believes that such modifications would involve closing the plant for a long period and so would be prohibitively expensive. He told the Herald that an Environment Agency (EA) study of NOx and Britain's power stations found that low NOx boilers could reduce NOx emissions by 50 to 60%. However, the EA had singled out Aberthaw as a unique design that was not suitable for low NOx boiler technology.
On 25th April 2016, Aberthaw announced that it was downgrading its operations due to ‘challenging’ market conditions. Henceforth it would only produce electricity at times of peak demand, mainly during the winter months. RWE told the Herald: ‘We welcome a debate on UK energy policy in the UK and we are supportive of renewable technologies. We believe Aberthaw Power Station has a role to play in supporting the transition to a low carbon energy economy. Everyone has the right to a peaceful protest and we are glad that Saturday's protest happened without any major impact on our operations. Environmental protection is of the utmost priority to RWE Generation and Aberthaw remains fully compliant with all permits that control emissions from the site and associated requirements for monitoring and reporting. Over recent years the station has invested a third of a billion pounds in emission reductions. Following a successful project to reduce NOx emissions from the site last year, RWE announced a change to operations. This will enable the station to support security of supply but with lower generation than in previous years. In addition, we will shortly begin a project to modify the plant to enable it to accept a more diverse range of international coal, which will further reduce emissions - this latest project will enable all of the station's units to reduce NOx emissions by an additional 30%.’
Richard Little Aberthaw Power Station Manager added, ‘I am glad that Saturday did not impact the station and the experienced and dedicated staff who work here. We operate 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week to provide electricity for millions of homes.’ RWE did not respond specifically to our questions about the geographic spread of Aberthaw’s pollution and the 400 premature deaths per year that FoE claimed it was causing. Neither did the company provide any information on when and to what degree the power station would downgrade operations.
The European Commission’s Aberthaw case was brought against the UK as the member state, but the responsibility for air pollution in Wales ultimately rests with the Labour Government. Natural Resources Wales is the principal environmental regulator and advisor to the Welsh Government. A Welsh government spokesperson told the Herald: ‘As the environmental regulator of Aberthaw Power Station, Natural Resources Wales are responsible for the modification of Aberthaw’s environmental permit as a result of the Court of Justice’s judgment. NRW have already written to RWE, the operator of Aberthaw, to set this in motion and have made a formal request for an explanation of RWE’s compliance plans. We remain committed to improving air quality across Wales and will continue to tackle emissions from industrial sources. RWE should press ahead with the delivery of the necessary emissions reductions at Aberthaw without delay.’
Nadia De Longhi, Operations Manager for Natural Resources Wales, told us: ‘NRW plays a key role in the implementation of environmental legislation to protect communities and the environment in Wales. We are considering the judgement from the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the implications of how we regulate Aberthaw power station, and its interpretation of provisions in the Large Combustion Plant Directive 2001/80/EC. We have now written to RWE Generation UK plc notifying them of our intention to review and vary the environmental permit, and have requested information from RWE Generation UK plc to inform this variation. We are waiting for a response from RWE Generation to this information request.’
On January 22nd, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Climate Change and Rural Affairs, Simon Thomas, confronted First Minister Carwyn Jones over the inadequacy of NRW’s action: ‘It is disgraceful that Natural Resources Wales has just written to the firm responsible for the plant even though the legal case was months ago. The Labour Government has neglected its duty to the people in Wales and beyond who are affected by this air pollution. The court case was last September. The plant's operators RWE, the member state, which is the UK Government, were found guilty of allowing illegal levels of pollution from Aberthaw power station. The company has not responded to the letter from Natural Resources Wales. There has been no change to the permit for this pollution and Public Health Wales confirmed to me last week that 1,150 early deaths take place annually in Wales because of nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution, the pollution emerging from Aberthaw power station. Surely the Labour Government appreciate the need to act when this pollution is coming from a power station that breaks all the rules and it is allowed to continue months after a court decided that this needed to be tackled.’
Aberthaw is one of Europe’s dirtiest and most toxic power stations. Indeed, the FoE and Greenpeace’s report calculates that: ‘Of the 12-highest nitrogen oxides polluters in the EU, Aberthaw is by some margin the greatest polluter relative to the electricity generated.’ Yet, the report continues: ‘We can find no reference to Aberthaw power station in the Welsh Government’s three Air Quality (NO2) plans for southern Wales, nor in the Respiratory Annual Report.’
Reclaim the Power argue that we do not need such polluting and inefficient power stations to provide our energy needs. Onshore wind in Wales could create up to 2,000 jobs, they claim, whilst upgrading the energy efficiency of Welsh homes would create 6,300 more jobs and also slash our heating bills. Offshore tidal lagoon projects, such as that planned for Swansea Bay, could diversify our energy supply. In early January, a powerful report by former energy minister Charles Hendry backed the construction of a £1.3 billion prototype lagoon in Swansea Bay. According to Reclaim the Power, the UK government continues to subsidise the fossil fuel industry whilst slashing support for renewables, staking our longer term energy future on expensive, unpopular and perilous nuclear power and shake gas fracking.