Image - Kelvin Mason
More than 150 people protested at Aberthaw on Saturday 28th January, demanding that the Welsh government take urgent action against the power station. 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 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 FoE 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, in In January 2016, RWE received a public subsidy of £27m to continue operating the plant.
Although the ECJ found against the UK as the member state, the responsibility for air pollution rests with the Welsh government via Natural Resources Wales (NRW). Last week Nadia De Longhi, Operations Manager for NRW commented: “We are considering the judgement from the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the implications of how we regulate Aberthaw power station. 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 to inform this variation. We are waiting for a response.’
In the Assembly 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 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.’
Protesters on the beach at Aberthaw were well aware of the Welsh government’s long history of complicity with coal. Aberthaw already operates under an exemption to emission regulations, allowing the plant to burn low volatility coal from south Wales which is difficult to ignite and requires a chemical ‘accelerant’. The 1.55 GW plant burns an astounding 35,000 tonnes of coal each week, the bulk of which comes from FFos-y-Fran near Merthyr Tydfil, the largest opencast coalmine in the UK. FFos-y-Fran was established in 2007 under the farcical pretext of being a land reclamation scheme. Merthyr resident Chris Austin of the United Valleys Action Group told those assembled at Aberthaw about the local pollution and climate change impacts of burning coal: ‘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.’ FFos-y-Fran is sited just 36 metres from some people’s homes which are blighted by dust and noise every day.
Over its projected lifetime, FFos-y-Fran will produce around 11 million tonnes of coal. 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 NOx and particulates. According to Reclaim the Power, one of the organisers of Saturday’s demonstration, continuing to mine coal from FFos-y-Fran and burning it in Aberthaw cannot be reconciled with the UK’s carbon reduction target under the 2008 Climate Change Act. Just last week, a delegation from the United Nations Environment Programme visited people in Merthyr Tydfil affected by FFos-y-Fran, proceeding to talks with the Welsh government which will, if recent history is any indication, turn another of its deliberately deaf ears to the issue.