Soot, smoke and ‘excessive’ gas emissions — welcome to Onslow, WA

Renewable Energy

Smoke and flames from Chevron’s Wheatstone gas plant can be seen on the way into Onslow. (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)


Residents living near one of Australia’s biggest resource projects say their complaints about what they describe as excessive soot smoke and flaring have been ignored.

Key points:

  • Onslow residents say black smoke and four-storey-high flares can be seen 70 km away
  • Chevron and LNG experts say flaring is important for the safety of the plant, and that the plant is in start-up mode
  • One resident says she’s been asking for air quality monitoring data for three years, but hasn’t received it

Environmental groups have called for greater transparency about the potential health impacts of Australia’s largest onshore liquified natural gas (LNG) plant, Chevron’s Wheatstone project, 12 kilometres south-west of the tiny Pilbara town of Onslow in Western Australia.

The complaints have come amid concerns about Chevron’s neighbouring Gorgon project, which has released millions of tonnes of carbon pollution into the atmosphere and the potential exposure of workers at the Barrow Island facility to toxic emissions.

a man pointing to smoke
Photo:
Terry Harry points to the soot and flames emitted from the flue at Chevron’s Wheatstone gas plant. (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)

Resident Terry Harry, a retired refrigeration mechanic, said he first noticed plumes of black smoke and orange flames from the Wheatstone project two years ago, which he said could be seen from 70km away.

“[The flame] is the equivalent of a four-storey building, then you’ve got your smoke on top of that, which tapers off across the sky,” he said.

Felicity Brennan is a long-term resident of Onslow who is deeply concerned about the emissions. She said it was near impossible to get answers at the community reference group meetings she had been attending.

“They keep saying that we’re still in start-up mode [for the domestic gas now], but this has been going on for so long, and there’s constantly black smoke and there’s constantly a flare,” Ms Brennan said.

She said she had been asking for air quality monitoring data for almost three years, but was yet to receive it.

“Any time you ask a tricky question or something they don’t want to answer, it has to go back to Houston, or it’s above my pay grade, basically.

“I don’t know if anyone else has [the data] but it’s certainly not available to us.”

After requests for the data by the ABC, Chevron made a presentation to three Community Reference Group members on a recent facility tour.

They say all data is under the National Environmental Pollution Measures guidelines, but have not yet provided levels of particulates or volatile organic compounds other than BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylene, xylene).

In a statement, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) attributed recent flaring episodes to a substation outage in February 2019 and a pressure fault in the flare staging system during commissioning ‘trains’ for domestic gas supply.

“Air quality monitoring for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and sulphur dioxide indicates measures have been met,” it said.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) said emissions could contain a toxic mixture of hydrocarbons, gases, oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and carbon monoxide, which are all harmful to human health, even at very low concentrations.

DEA medical expert George Crisp said there were health concerns about the fine particulates of volatile organic compounds contained in the soot.

a container and blue sky
Photo:
An air quality monitor in the centre of Onslow. (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)

Dr Crisp, who has published research on gas emissions worldwide, believed Australia had a big problem with transparency of air pollution monitoring, which he said made it very difficult for health researchers to raise awareness or inform the public about potential risks.

He said it was absolutely appropriate that populations were fully informed about potential risks to their health in advance, not afterwards.

“There can be toxic carbons like formaldehyde in the mixture, as well as mercury and other metals, which accumulate in the local environment,” Dr Crisp said.

“We know sulphur dioxide is harmful, and we also know that oxides of nitrogen are harmful.”

He said secondary pollutants in the air such as ozone and particulate matter were also contained in the emissions.

After viewing the NPI data for Wheatstone, Dr Crisp pointed to what he said were large amounts of volatile organic compounds, benzene and other pollutants.

Substance Total (kg)
Arsenic & compounds 0.022
Benzene 38,000
Cadmium & compounds 0.12
Carbon monoxide 5,500,000
Copper & compounds 0.094
Ethylbenzene 1900
n-Hexane 270,000
Lead & compounds 0.055
Mercury & compounds 0.029
Nickel & compounds 0.23
Oxides of Nitrogen 1,500,000
Particulate Matter 10.0 um 13,000
Particulate Matter 2.5 um 12,000
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (B[a]Peq) 0.13
Sulphur dioxide 9,100
Toluene (methylbenzene) 22,000
Total Volatile Organic Compounds 9,300,000
Xylenes (individual or mixed isomers) 5,500

Source: Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy National Pollutant Inventory

Dr Crisp said both proximity and wind direction were important to determine how much of that pollution stayed in the air near Onslow.

He said that while data showed pollution levels from the Onslow collection point were under the recommended maximum measures for toxins, medical experts know exposure to some of these substances at low levels is harmful to humans.

“While averages over a 14-day period each month appear to be low, they may miss significant spikes during and outside of the monitoring periods,” Dr Crisp said.

“We do not know if exposure to levels of Ozone (O3) at these levels is safe, there is not evidence of a safe threshold to O3, so there may still be harm in the community, albeit at a very low level.”

Map of Onslow
Photo:

The prevailing wind direction from the Wheatstone gas plant towards the residential town of Onslow. (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)

Ms Brennan said the Chevron gas plant was still being constructed last winter, and she was concerned which way the emissions would be carried on the wind this year.

“It’s that thick, but we’ve been pretty lucky because mostly we’ve had easterlies and south-easterlies over the past few months, but we will now be coming into the south-westerlies and the southerlies,” she said.

a man at a desk
Photo: Dr George Crisp from Doctors for the Environment Australia says he’s concerned about the proximity of the plant to Onslow. (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)

Dr Crisp said he was concerned about the proximity of the plant to the town for both short-term spikes of pollution but also long-term low-level exposure.

“We know that these chemicals are toxic and sometimes at really low levels, which certainly could be producing harmful effects on the population.

“So it’s not possible to say that there isn’t exposure or harm occurring in these communities.”

Gas experts say the emissions are a sign of upsets in the plant during commissioning.

Professor Gus Nathan, a specialist in industrial energy, renewable solar thermal and combustion at the University of Adelaide, said a lot of work had been done over the years to develop current international standards of smokeless emissions to manage any soot from gas plant flues.

“Flares are used as a safety system so that if there’s an upset in the plant it prevents explosions, so they’re a critical part of a system,” Professor Nathan said.

He said most gas processing plants in the world had to demonstrate smokeless operations during normal operating conditions, although larger volumes for short periods would be allowed.

a man
Photo: Greg Bourne, Climate Councillor, energy expert and former president of BP Australasia says it’s not good PR. (Supplied: Climate Council)


There is usually a requirement to manage extra emissions within a reasonable time, but during normal operations, when a plant is licensed for production, it should be running in what he called a “smokeless mode”.

“Obviously that’s between the EPA, the local community, and the company to work out together, but [those emissions] are definitely not normal operations,” he said.

Energy expert and former president of BP Australasia Greg Bourne said he would be very surprised if residents were not being properly informed about potential risks to their health from the commissioning pollution.

Mr Bourne, who has a background in the LNG industry, acknowledged that it was a difficult process involving many subcontractors.

“It may well be that emissions are well within health guidelines and health limits but unless they know, how can they actually make an informed decision as to whether or not something else should be happening?” he said.

“Chevron certainly seems to be mishandling this from a public relations point of view and possibly from a health point of view.”

smoke and flame
Photo:
Emissions from the Wheatstone gas processing plant at Onslow. (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)

The EPA received Wheatstone’s full production licence application in February 2019 for their first and second liquid natural gas production trains, which is currently being assessed to determine if it is valid, with a period for stakeholder comment.

Once that licence is approved for production, it is expected that emissions limits will be put in place and the facility will operate in smokeless mode.

Director of the Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) Piers Verstegen said the company needed to take responsibility to reduce the amount of pollution it was issuing.

“It’s well overdue that they have a proper pollution control licence, which sets limits on the amount of pollution that they are able to produce and has disclosure to the community on what kind of pollution they are being subjected to,” Mr Verstegen said.

A head shot of a man wearing a checked shirt.
The Conservation Council’s Piers Verstegen accused industry of trying to dictate climate change policy. (ABC News: James Carmody)

CCWA is calling on Chevron to come forward with the kinds of conditions it thinks should be put on their operating licence, which should be the subject of public consultation.

Mr Verstegen said the community had a right to know what it would be subjected to before the pollution occurred, including toxic chemicals such as mercury, toluene, ethylene and benzene.

“Unfortunately at the moment there’s very poor reporting going on so we don’t know the exact nature of those emissions,” he said.

“The impact of the toxic emissions that come from that flare [at Wheatstone] need to be separately examined [to carbon pollution in relation to climate change].

“It’s not appropriate that a facility like that is operating in this day and age without any limits on its pollution.”

‘You may as well call it Chevron town’

When resident Terry Harry contacted the EPA to complain, he was told the plant was operating within its normal operational guidelines.

He also received no response from either the Shire of Ashburton or Chevron after contacting them about his concerns.

Shire of Ashburton CEO Rob Paull said he was not aware of any complaints but anyone with concerns should to contact the EPA and Chevron.

Another resident who spoke to the ABC confidentially said there was a bad smell in the air when the strong southerly winds blew over the town.

Mr Harry said residents were reluctant to complain about the pollution because their businesses depended on the company.

“You may as well call it Chevron town,” he said.

Chevron has regularly sent community notices to residents about progress and faults.

In a statement, Chevron said the Wheatstone plant at Ashburton North was in the final stages of commissioning.

“Flaring and the generation of smoke is a normal part of the start-up process and during upset conditions,” it stated.

“Monitoring results are reported to the government regulator as required under the works approval.

“We continue to conduct comprehensive air monitoring at the plant, the Wheatstone Village, and the Onslow township.

“All air monitoring data has remained significantly below the national guidelines, including during periods of increased flaring.”

Contributed by :