LANDMARK REPORT CALLS FOR AUSTRALIA-FIRST COAL ASH CLEANUP INDUSTRY 17 NOVEMBER 2021
In a landmark report published today, parties from across the political spectrum have come together to recognise that coal ash, a by-product of coal-fired power, is a toxic waste product that needs better regulation.
The NSW Parliamentary Inquiry recommends the establishment of a new coal ash reuse taskforce, consisting of government agencies, unions, industry stakeholders and community groups, to oversee the regulation and clean-up of the 200 million tonnes of coal ash in NSW dams, and to foster a new industry in coal ash reuse in a range of building materials.
Coal ash represents almost 20% of Australia’s total waste stream, with only around 20% of it being reused in NSW, compared with the global average of around 53%.
The committee that ran the Inquiry, comprising members of Government and Labor as well as Greens MP Abigail Boyd who initiated the inquiry, also acknowledges for the first time that coal ash presents a risk to the environment and human health, and calls for the remediation of existing coal ash dumps across the state.
Abigail Boyd, NSW Greens MP & spokesperson for Coal, Mining & Gas, said:
‘This is a landmark report that represents a historic turning point for NSW.
‘Coal ash from coal-fired power stations is 20% of our national waste stream, but we just dump the vast majority of it into unlined dams right next to communities and waterways.
‘We have heard from experts from around the world on the risks that coal ash poses to public health and the environment, and the best practice regulation for its storage and reuse.
‘This report shows a genuine willingness from parties across the political spectrum to minimise the health and environmental risks posed by toxic coal ash dams, and to provide transparency over what happens to the hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal ash sitting in unlined dams across the state.
‘The potential for a coal ash remediation and reuse industry is enormous. We could see the communities currently suffering the health impacts of this toxic waste instead given the tools for thousands of jobs that will clean up their regions and put this currently discarded product to use.
‘The recommendations of this inquiry are backed by parties across the political spectrum, from the Greens to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. The Government must now put its weight behind this new coal ash reuse industry and commit to cleaning up these toxic coal ash dams across the state.’
- Currently, 200 million tonnes of coal ash are stored in NSW, predominantly in unlined dams which leak toxic heavy metals into the environment, including into Lake Macquarie. This waste is growing by 3.8 million tonnes each year.
- The committee also heard from industry experts and power station operators about the opportunity to create a thriving coal ash reuse industry in NSW, with Australia lagging significantly behind other countries when it comes to reusing our coal ash.
- Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to coal ash reuse. Coal ash represents almost 20% of Australia’s total waste stream, with only around 20% of it being reused in NSW. Compare this to the global average of around 53%, and Netherlands and Germany at 100% and 97% respectively. The Inquiry recommends a minimum reuse target of 80%.
- The Committee has recommended the establishment of a ‘coal ash reuse taskforce’, comprised of state government agencies, unions, industry stakeholders and community groups to lead development of a strategy to achieve at least 80% reuse of coal ash produced in NSW.
- Coal ash can be recycled into a range of building materials, creating economic and employment opportunities in regional areas, while also transforming an environmental hazard into useful products. Main uses of recycled coal ash include road and pavement construction, concrete manufacture, bricks and tiles.
- The taskforce will also be tasked with recommending new regulations for coal ash dams, measures to constrain health and environmental risks, and best practice for land remediation of coal-fired power station sites.
- The Inquiry also recommends that NSW Health immediately investigates the health impacts of coal ash on nearby NSW communities, and that the NSW EPA commission an independent investigation into the environmental impacts of coal ash dams.
- The Public Works Committee’s Inquiry into the costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories was initiated by Greens MLC Abigail Boyd in 2019, following her discovery that the Government retained some liability for contamination at coal-fired power stations despite their privatisation.
The Inquiry’s report can be found here.
Images of coal ash dumps in NSW can be found in the Hunter Community Environment Centre’s media pack here.
OUT OF THE ASHES II : SUMMARY OF KEY FINDINGS
SUMMARY OF KEY FINDINGS
Out of the Ashes II: water pollution and NSW aging coal-fired power stations
Extensive investigations carried out by the Hunter Community Environment Centre, published today in the Out of the Ashes II report expose regulation failures enabling hundreds of tonnes of harmful heavy metals to pollute NSW waterways
• Some heavy metals are carcinogenic and are linked to global biodiversity decline in fish, frogs and bird populations.
If adopted by the NSW Government, the recommendations of Out of the Ashes II will:
- Slow harmful heavy metal pollution, impacting ecosystems in Lake Macquarie, the Central Hunter Valley and the Upper Cox’s catchment
- See an expansion in the beneficial reuse of coal-ash and boost the sustainable manufacturing sector in regional NSW
- Make the full remediation and revegetation of these contaminated sites possible
- The findings of Out of the Ashes II are drawn from public, Government and industry data, as well as field investigations completed by the HCEC and concludes that coal- ash management and reuse practices are failing to prevent the contamination of ecosystems with leachate from seven dumps across NSW in Lake Macquarie, Lithgow and the Hunter Valley.
The key findings of Out of the Ashes II, as reported on ABC News are summarised here:
- An estimated 100 tonnes of harmful heavy metals leach into NSW waterways every year, from the 216 million tonnes of accumulated coal ash waste in Lake Macquarie (101Mt) the Central Hunter Valley (84Mt), Central Tablelands (28Mt) and Wollongong (3Mt).
- If no additional coal-ash reuse occurs in NSW, a further 45 million tonnes of waste will accumulate, from which 970 tonnes of harmful heavy metals are expected to leach into waterways
- The NSW Government is liable for the bulk of the pollution stemming from coal-ash waste
- Contamination studies from 2014 commissioned by NSW Treasury to quantify pollution levels at coal-ash dumps before the privatisation of the NSW coal-fleet show extensive groundwater, surface water and sediment contamination with heavy metals at all NSW coal-ash waste sites. Our analysis suggested that these studies under- estimate the contamination levels due to poorly selected and limited background wells.
- Analysis of published water quality monitoring data shows increasing trends for many heavy metals being emitted and numerous exceedances of Australian Water Quality Guidelines for species protection, recreational use and livestock and irrigation purposes
- Industry studies into coal-ash toxicity confirm that NSW ash poses environmental risks for selenium, molybdenum, boron, vanadium, nickel, zinc, and copper
- Coal-fired power stations are under-reporting to the National Pollutant Inventory, and evading pollution fees. Under the Load-Based Licencing Scheme, NSW power stations currently pay a mere $150,000 a year in pollution fees for water pollution. In order to create an adequate incentive to address the problem we believe NSW power station operators should be paying a combined LBL fee of $150 million a year for the metals leached from coal-ash waste dumps.
Lake Macquarie & Central Coast: Vales Point & Eraring
- Lake Macquarie has the largest concentration of ash waste in NSW where 101 million tonnes is stored on its shores
- 45 tonnes of harmful heavy metals are predicted to leach into Lake Macquarie each year from Eraring and Vales
Point, to continue for decades to come
- In addition to annual estimated 302 tonnes of metals will pollute between now and the retirement of the power
- Limits on the consumption of seafood from Lake Macquarie are already in place due to the bio-accumulation of selenium in fish, and a recent Government study found that cadmium in mud-crab has also reached unsafe concentrations
Vales Point (Delta Electricity)
- Vales Point ash dump is the largest in the state, containing an estimated 60 million tonnes of ash waste
- Vales Point ash dump is estimated to have leached 720 tonnes of heavy metals into Lake Macquarie since it was
- If nothing is done to increase ash reuse at Vales Point, between now and its retirement it will pollute Lake
Macquarie with a further 96 tonnes of harmful heavy metals
- The contamination studies completed for NSW Treasury at Vales Point show exceedances of maximum background concentrations for zinc, selenium, cobalt, copper, lead, manganese and nickel, and concluded that the ash dump is a primary source of arsenic and selenium in groundwater
- Vales Point have a reuse rate of about 26% per year and use outdated methods of ash transport (wetter, rather than dryer) which exacerbates heavy metal leachate pollution
- HCEC’s water sampling of drainage from the Vales Point ash dump into Lake Macquarie (Mannering Bay) identified
water quality exceedances of species protection and recreational use limits for aluminum, arsenic, cobalt, iron, manganese, nickel and zinc
- Vales Point groundwater monitoring shows consistent exceedances of Australian Water Quality Guidelines for arsenic, copper, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, selenium, and zinc, and surface water discharge monitoring shows occasional exceedances of cadmium, copper, and lead, and consistent exceedances of selenium. The trend for discharged selenium concentrations is increasing.
- Since Vales Point was commissioned in the 1960s, heavy metals levels in the adjacent Mannering Bay have spiked with cadmium concentrations in sediment increasing by a factor of 15, copper x12, zinc x10, selenium x10
and lead x4
Eraring (Origin Energy)
- With a reuse rate of 35%, Eraring has the highest reuse rate in NSW
- Origin Energy’s Eraring ash dump is estimated to contain 40 million tonnes of ash waste, predicted to have leached
almost 685 tonnes of heavy metals into Lake Macquarie since its commissioning
- Just under 205 tonnes of harmful heavy metals are predicted to leach from the Eraring dump between now and its
planned retirement in 2035
- HCEC’s water sampling of drainage from the Eraring ash dump into Lake Macquarie (Myuna Bay) identified water quality exceedances of species protection and recreational use limits for aluminum, boron, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, nickel and zinc
- Environmental Protection Licence (EPL) water monitoring data for Eraring shows exceedances of species protection limits for cadmium, copper and zinc, and consistently iron concentrations five times the recreational use guideline.
- Contamination studies completed for NSW Treasury at Eraring identified arsenic, copper, lead, nickel, selenium and zinc in groundwater samples at concentrations in excess of the adopted human health and/or ecological screening values
- Eraring’s ash dump is reaching capacity, and in 2019 Origin applied for an ash dam expansion which will only accommodate additional ash until 2024
- The closure of the Myuna Bay Sport and Recreation Centre in 2019 was triggered by the risk of catastrophic collapse of the Eraring ash dam wall in the event of an earthquake
Central Hunter Valley: Liddell & Bayswater
- Around 84 million tonnes of accumulated ash waste is polluting waterways in the Central Hunter Valley from AGL ash sites
- Each year, a further 40 tonnes of heavy metal pollution is expected to leach from the Bayswater and Liddell ash dumps
- Bayswater burdens the region with 45 million tonnes of accumulated ash, from which 860 tonnes of heavy metals are expected to have leached since its commissioning
- AGL dump Bayswater ash into the unlined Pikes Gully ash dump and a former open-cut mine, now called the Ravensworth Rehabilitation area, both of which ultimately flow into the Hunter River
- Bayswater’s reuse rate is approximately 20% and the Department of Planning are awaiting more information from AGL about a recently lodged application to increase its ash reuse rate
- Bayswater has the highest ash production of all NSW power stations, and is expected to produce an additional 19 million tonnes of waste between now and its planned retirement in 2049, from this additional ash a further 410 tonnes harmful heavy metals are estimated to leach
- There is no requirement to publish groundwater pollution data under Bayswater’s Environmental Protection Licence (EPL)
- Bayswater water quality monitoring data shows an increasing trend and consistent breaches of the concentration limits for boron and molybdenum stipulated in the Environmental Protection Licence (EPL)
- HCEC’s water sampling of drainage from the Ravensworth Rehabilitation Area and the Baywaster Ash Dam identified exceedances of water quality guidelines for aluminum, copper, iron and zinc
- The NSW Treasury contamination study at Bayswater identified boron, cadmium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel, and zinc in excess of ecological limits in groundwater bores at the ash dump boundary and perimeter
- AGL dispose of coal-ash in the former Ravensworth mine void, a practice linked to increased concentrations of heavy metals in groundwater and still partially utilize outdated wet ash transportation
- Liddell’s coal-ash dump contains 39 million tonnes of waste, and is expected to have contributed 760 tonnes of heavy metal leachate to the regions waterways
- Liddell is the only power station in NSW that does not beneficially reuse any coal-ash
- Between now and its retirement in 2022, Liddell is expected to leach 51 tonnes of heavy metals
- Environmental Protection Licence (EPL) water quality monitoring data for Liddell shows increasing trends for cadmium and boron, exceedances of ecological protection limits for zinc, copper, cadmium and boron, as well as irrigation and livestock limits for selenium discharge.
- Results of HCEC’s water sampling of drainage from the Liddell ash dump into Tinkers Creek found exceedances of species protection limits for aluminum, copper, boron, nickel and zinc; recreational use limits for aluminum and iron and; long-term irrigation limits for boron and iron
- Sediment analysis from Tinkers Creek showed very high copper, mercury and nickel deposition, above sediment quality guidelines
- The NSW Treasury contamination study at Liddell found lead, selenium and nickel in exceeded the recreational
- Laboratory analysis of a black swan feather taken from the shore of Lake Liddell show bioaccumulation of
aluminium, copper, iron, manganese, selenium, and zinc
- Despite its scheduled decommissioning in 2022, there are no plans in place to rehabilitate the Liddell ash dump and prevent continuing leachate from entering waterways
Upper Cox’s River: Mt Piper & Wallerawang (Energy Australia)
- 28 million tonnes of coal-ash is stored in Lithgow, at the top of Sydney’s drinking water catchment
- 15 million tonnes at Mt Piper and 13 million tonnes at the decommissioned Wallerawang dump contribute 16
tonnes of harmful metals per year to the Upper Cox’s River
- The Mt Piper ash dump uses dry ash-placement, in contrast to the generally wet ash dams in NSW
- Between now and its planned retirement in 2049, 206 tonnes of harmful heavy metals will leach from Mt Piper if nothing is done to increase reuse rates
- Until this year, Energy Australia had no obligation to publish monitoring data for heavy metal pollutants entering the Upper Cox’s River, at the top of Sydney’s drinking water catchment. Results for a range of metals emitted to surface and groundwater are now required to be published.
- This year, Energy Australia admitted to the NSW EPA that the Mt Piper ash dump is contaminating groundwater
- Results of HCEC’s water surface water sampling of drainage from Mt Piper and Wallerawang ash sites and the Springvale mine discharge point found significant water quality guideline exceedances of species protection limits for boron, manganese, nickel, cadmium, copper, zinc; recreational guideline limits for aluminum, boron, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese and nickel
- Exceedances for arsenic, cadmium, lead, nickel, and zinc were identified in sediment samples taken by HCEC from four separate sites including Lake Wallace
- The Wallerwang EPL was recently transferred from Energy Australia to Generator Property Management and finally Greenspot. No monitoring for heavy metal pollutants is stipulated in the EPL.
- Lake Illawarra: Tallawara
- The former Tallawara power station ash dump holds 3 million tonnes of coal-ash which is predicated to have leached 1 tonne of heavy metals into Lake Illawarra in Wollongong