Green tape, tinfoil hats, and safe Opposition seats

It seems that federal Labor and the mostly conservative Premiers want to get rid of “green tape” – or, more specifically, some of the federal government’s power to restrict developments based on environmental laws.

Living in the People’s Republic of Moreland, we have no shortage of environmentally-concerned residents, but not a lot of local environment to protect. But we do have one local exemplar of the Baillieu government’s attitude to environmental protection – the expansion of an electricity substation along the Merri Creek in Fitroy North, in an inner-suburban cul-de-sac immediately to Brunswick’s east.

The Merri Creek is unlikely to feature in a tourism campaign promoting Melbourne any time soon. A century of development and pollution have left the creek in a heavily degraded state. But things are improving; several decades of patient work by Melbourne Water, and the Friends of Merri Creek, have re-established native vegetation along much of its banks. Like most of Melbourne’s waterways, there’s also no shortage of sports grounds, golf driving ranges, and so on.

For the same reason as the sports grounds, Merri Creek is also a major transmission route for Melbourne’s electricity. It may not bother the Kerrigans out at Bonnie Doon, but in my view the high-voltage transmission lines along the creek don’t exactly do wonders for the serenity of the area. These terminate at the Brunswick Terminal Station, a collection of transformers that reduce the voltage for shorter-range transmission.

With the continuing growth of inner Melbourne, the good folk at AEMO (the market regulator), Citipower (the local distributor) and SP AusNet (the transmission operator) want to build a larger substation at the site to meet the demand. The proposal involves building a number of new buildings on the site, additional transformers, and additional high-voltage transmission capacity along the creek (though I gather that will not require new pylons).

The local residents are not happy, claiming that the proposal is “not safe, not right, (and) not on”. In their view, any new substation should be built in an existing industrial area, or, if not, the whole thing, including the transmission lines, should be put underground, to avoid the safety risks of EMF exposure.

EMF exposure? Safety risks?

The transmission lines, and the transformers at the station, create powerful magnetic fields that oscillate according to the 50 Hz cycle of AC power. Their fact sheet states the following:

The World Health Organisation has stated that levels of Chronic EMF exposure around 3mG doubles the
incidence of childhood luekemia in a population. The modelled levels around the BTS site range from 4-9mG peaking at 28mG, the modelled EMF levels under the HV lines over residences north of the BTS site range from 30mG to over 50mG.

As is often the case, though, the real scientific picture is considerably more equivocal.

The first thing to keep in mind is that, as ARPANSA notes in an informative fact sheet, the form of childhood leukemia supposedly affected by EMF is a rare disease:

The total childhood (0-14 years) risk is about 91 (male) and 80 (female) per 100,000. The most recent
data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicated that in 2001 there were 228 new cases of
ALL in Australia.

That’s cases, mind you, not fatalities. Apparently, the cure rate in children is about 80% – though, of course, the process of being cured of cancer is a pretty bloody traumatic one for the child and their entire family.

The next thing to keep in mind is that the evidence for any effect is pretty weak. Here’s a review paper, but if you want a more accessible summary you could try the regulatory authority, ARPANSA’s, view. In short, it’s not even established that there is an effect.

However, ARPANSA’s draft standard for EMF exposure apparently recommends a precautionary approach. After many years of development, the final version of that standard is apparently to be released some time in early 2012…early 2012 is getting kind of old, and there’s no sign of it yet.

Whatever an appropriate precautionary approach might be in this specific case, I doubt it would satisfy the local residents. Alternatives like another site, or undergrounding, are at least 100 million dollars more expensive. To put not too fine a point on it, if you had 100 million dollars to spend on improving health, there are a lot of other things you could spend it on and get a lot more guaranteed QALYs for your buck.

But let’s leave aside the cranky old man demanding cost-effective spending on health interventions for a minute, and note that there is at some credible scientific evidence of an issue at some level, and that the federal government’s regulatory agency is about to issue guidelines that will probably suggest that a precautionary approach should be taken.

Let’s also note that high-voltage powerlines, whatever their health impact, are a fugly eyesore in a little oasis of something approximating nature in a part of Melbourne that is grossly undersupplied with nature and over quota on fugly eyesores (Brunswick, I love you, but you’ve sure got your rough edges).

In any case, the city of Moreland rejected the builders’ application for the extension, as I understand it because the new buildings would encroach on an environmental overlay surrounding the Merri Creek. The builders appealed to VCAT.

And then Planning Minister Matthew Guy stepped in and used his powers to rezone the area, approving the new building!

At one level, I get the reasoning. Melbourne needs more electricity distribution capacity, and all of the alternatives are either infeasible or way more costly. And the health risks are unproven, and even if they’re real, they’re frankly tiny in magnitude. And the aesthetics? Well, the power lines were already there, and nor is the building significantly worse. All this carry-on? Green tape getting in the way of essential infrastructure to support a growing city.

But conventional electricity infrastructure in Green-voting booths in safe Labor seats is one thing. Wind farms in coalition-held seats? Entirely another. Evidence-free claims about the health effects of wind farms, and complaints about the aesthetics? That’s enough, we’ll give everyone who lives within cooee a veto! Know a charming little spot on Phillip Island? Want to stop it being developed, and know the right people? Instant backflip!

And that’s what I fear this sudden desire to wipe out “green tape” will come down to. While those able to muster enough political muscle will still get their environmental protections, watering down “green tape” will just allow railroading the politically unimportant a little more quickly.

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10 Responses to Green tape, tinfoil hats, and safe Opposition seats

  1. scot mcphee says:

    Should point out, I don’t think that putting them underground would reduce the field density. However having them 10 metres or more in the air, does (inverse square rule). Also I thought I read somewhere that some of these health effects are caused from the field attracting particulate pollution in the air?

    However you are right, ‘cutting green tape’ is just weasle code for open season on the environment.

    • That sounds plausible, Scot – except that if it was attracting particulates, you’d also get raised asthma rates, heart disease, etc, and there’s been no association found.

  2. g2-33c04e9f8b6032a33d7786368738d252 says:

    See also:
    Logging more coupes around Toolangi/Castella.
    Brown coal mining in Bacchus Marsh.
    Fracking, practically everywhere.
    Burning woodchips for power.
    More licences for grazing cattle in Alpine national parks…

    The list of noxious projects that will welcome the reduction of “green tape” grows ever longer.

    Speaking of noxious – I see according to WordPress my name is now “g2-33c04e9f8b6032a33d7786368738d252”. Awesome.

  3. JAY TANNA says:

    People say there is a very serious problem posting comments here so I am just testing you out.

  4. g2-33c04e9f8b6032a33d7786368738d252 says:

    Robert, you can call me G2.

  5. duggy47 says:

    Now I understand the posters I see everywhere on people’s front fences along the Merri Creek when cycling. Years ago we had a very similar battle with the then SEC when they wanted to extend the high tension power lines along the Merri Creek down through Clifton Hill and build a big new terminal station in our street just down from where I live. We won eventually but boy it was hard. Also I wouldn’t hold my breath hoping for WordPress to fix anything. I’ve never been able to find out how to change my user name.

  6. duggy47 says:

    For what it’s worth (possibly not much) if I was fighting this battle I wouldn’t give up on undergrounding if that is a partial solution to the problem. I say that because when we fnally won our battle that is exactly the outcome we got. High tension lines on pylons that were to have continued down the Merri Creek beyond the High Street bridge,or undegrounded under our footpaths to a new terminal station at the creek end of Ramsden Street Clifton Hill were instead undergrounded down the middle of Hoddle Street to the existing Richmond terminal station. So there is a useful precedent. To the barricades good folk of Moreland!

    • Fair enough, though from my personal perspective there are other battles that are more important to me. The pylons are already there; it’s not going to make things uglier, and even if the risks are real it’s piddling compared to, say, the risks from the crap coming out of the exhaust pipes of cars.

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