Coal and dust plagues two southern Perth suburbs

Residents of two southern Perth suburbs are suffering from dust and smell that say comes from the nearby coal-burning Cockburn Cement plant.

Coal and dust plagues two southern Perth suburbs

This story was originally published in The West Australian on 24 April 2018 with the headline "Coal-fired plant makes sea breeze a reeking nightmare for residents of Beeliar and Munster." © Peter Milne.

Opening your house to the cool sea breeze is a treasured summer tradition in Perth but one that Beeliar’s Gloria Horton can’t enjoy.

“You close the place up, you close the doors, you stay inside or you go out,” she said.

The alternative, she says, is to suffer itchy, watery eyes from fumes generated by the immensely profitable Cockburn Cement lime plant in nearby Munster.

“We tend to go to the beach for walks a lot and when you breathe in that beautiful fresh air that’s what you should be breathing here,” she said.

As well as smell, residents say they have to cope with dust falling on their houses two or three times a week.

Mrs Horton and her husband found out about the long-running problems in the area only when they smelt the fumes while visiting their then under-construction house.

“I felt cheated and I felt this should never have been developed as a residential area,” she said.

It is only by chance that the State Government will soon decide on calls for the plant, which is the jewel in the crown of publicly listed construction materials company Adelaide Brighton, to clean up its act above and beyond what the environmental regulator wants.

The campaigner

Two Christmases ago, Greg Hocking’s neighbour in Beeliar told him he had spotted a mention in a public notice that the plant’s licence had been amended. Mr Hocking, a retired lawyer, worked over Christmas to beat the deadline and lodge an appeal on behalf of his neighbour.

Mr Hocking spent a good part of last year building his case and by February this year the appeal had grown to a 200-page, point-by-point demand for more stringent conditions on the plant and tougher enforcement by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation.

Mr Hocking had to base his initial appeal on a report that had been heavily redacted by DWER after Cockburn Cement claimed the information was commercially sensitive.

After a yearlong freedom of information process, Mr Hocking received a less redacted report and supporting studies in February.

He learnt that while the company claimed it was not the primary source of odours in the area, the regulator had determined that it was.

Expensive filters installed in 2012 and 2013 successfully reduced dust from the kilns, but there was still dust from the storage and handling of loose cement, clinker and lime.

The report classified this dust as a high risk without the extra controls that DWER proposed in December 2016.

Major consequences of dust exposure included permanent prolonged adverse health effects for a small number of people.

Odours from the kilns also attracted a high risk rating but with less severe consequences, including expected short-term effects requiring treatment.

The plant is the only facility in the Perth metropolitan area that burns coal, according to a DWER letter to Mr Hocking.

“They should change the fuel from burning dirty coal to burning natural gas which will substantially reduce the range and the quantity of the pollutants that are going into the air,” Mr Hocking said.

A DWER study of stack emissions, obtained from the FOI request, stated “it is well known that emissions of sulphur dioxide and particles from natural gas combustion are negligible compared to coal”.

The regulator’s report concluded that the sulphur content of kiln fuel was a vital factor in generating the odours.

The report revealed the regulator had rejected a request from Cockburn Cement to increase the allowable sulphur content in its coal from 0.7 per cent to 0.8 per cent.

The company said it was concerned about the future availability of lower sulphur coal.

It is understood that the plant burns about 250,000 tonnes of coal a year.

Dusty, smelly profits

The Munster plant is one of the biggest and lowest-cost lime operations in the world, Adelaide Brighton’s recently released 2017 annual report says. The plant has operated at about 80 per cent of its capacity, or one million tonnes a year, for the past three years, according to company reports.

The Munster plant accounted for about 95 per cent of the company’s total production.

It was estimated the operation produced lime worth $3 million in sales a week last year.

Taylor Collison head of research Robin Morgan estimated that lime’s share of earnings at Adelaide Brighton was double its share of sales.

If correct, that analysis suggests the South Australian-headquartered company made more than $38 million in after-tax profit from the two lime kilns in Munster. Lime production could be increased because the two operating kilns can produce an extra 250,000 tonnes a year and the two kilns under care and maintenance could be restarted.

East Churchill Avenue, Beeliar, sits at the top of a 1.5km-radius buffer zone.

Local resident Sharon Polkinghorne said her nose felt burnt by the sulphur smell and in the morning her car could be covered in a fine, white gritty dust. A few houses down the road, Lisa Rainsford has had the same experience. Both are concerned about their health.

Soon, a few hundred metres to the east, there will be more people living on the buffer’s edge.

In October, Adelaide Brighton made $8.4 million profit from selling 12ha of old quarry south of McLaren Avenue, Beeliar, that is approved for subdivision.

Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said once he had read the Appeals Convenor’s investigation he would form an opinion on the adequacy of the current conditions and the performance of DWER.

He said he was aware of the significant community concern about the emissions.

Main picture: Cockburn Cement plant in Munster.

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