Out Of The Ashes II – The Coal Ash Threat In NSW

Coal ash pollution in New South Wales

Image: Out Of The Ashes II – Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC)

A report released by Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC) yesterday estimates 100 tonnes of harmful heavy metals leach into NSW waterways every year from coal ash waste in four regions.

Ash produced from coal fired power generation is claimed to be Australia’s third largest waste stream, representing 20% of this nation’s total domestic waste. Far from being an inert sort of waste, it’s a toxic cocktail containing various heavy metals and other chemicals.

None of the operating coal ash dumps in New South Wales are lined with an impermeable membrane, which means contaminants leach into surrounding ground and surface water when water in the ash slurries and rain seeps through.

HCEC’s  Out Of The Ashes II report estimates the five operating coal-fired power stations in NSW collectively generate about 4.8 million tonnes of coal ash a year, and dump approximately 3.8 million tonnes into on-site ash dams, placement areas or mine voids. Add to this ash from decommissioned power stations and the total coal ash waste accumulated in New South Wales is put at around 216 million tonnes currently. All of the sites are claimed to be responsible for water contamination.

The problem isn’t something that can be solved just by switching to renewable energy. As with other issues with coal, this legacy will remain with us for a very long time.

HCEC says the New South Wales Government has been aware of extensive contamination issues at all coal ash dumps in the state for at least 7 years – through a 2014 NSW Treasury report.

Vales Point – Just Freaking Toxic

No matter how you look at it, Delta Electricity’s coal-fired clunker Vales Point Power Station is an environmental nightmare. Its associated ash dump is one of a number put in the spotlight in the Out Of The Ashes II report, which states it is the largest in New South Wales – containing an estimated 60 million tonnes of waste.

The Vales Point ash dump is thought to have leached 720 tonnes of heavy metals into Lake Macquarie since it was commissioned in the 1960’s and will pollute the lake with another 96 tonnes of heavy metals before it is (perhaps) retired in 2029. As well as exceeding maximum background concentrations for heavy metals including zinc, selenium, cobalt and lead, the report claims the ash dump is a primary source of arsenic and selenium in groundwater.

Vales Point has been in news recently after having been tapped for a Federal Government grant – and then just days later copping a (paltry) fine from the EPA for unrelated waste and pollution offences.

The threats posed by other ash dumps in New South Wales highlighted in the report includes those associated with Eraring, Liddell, Bayswater and Mt Piper power stations.

Fixing The Coal Ash Dump Problem

While carrying a toxic payload, coal ash isn’t entirely useless. One of its low-risk applications is in concrete products – but not enough of it is being used.

With that in mind and the accusation the NSW Government is liable for the majority of coal ash related pollution, the report makes 9 recommendations; including:

  • The NSW Government commits to decontaminating all coal ash waste dumps in the state.
  • The NSW Government adopts policies ensuring a substantial proportion of concrete purchased or as part of its tenders contains coal ash products.
  • The NSW EPA undertake an investigation into coal ash generated in NSW to determine environmental risks associated with all uses.
  • The EPA imposes a load based licence fee of at least $20 a tonne on all coal ash disposed of in ash dams, landfills, and mine voids.
  • The NSW EPA strictly enforces ANZECC water quality guidelines.

The full Out Of The Ashes II report can be viewed here, or a summary here.

It’s not just the HCEC that has expressed concern about coal ash dumps – in July last year Environmental Justice Australia called them a ticking time bomb.

About Michael Bloch

Michael caught the solar power bug after purchasing components to cobble together a small off-grid PV system in 2008. He's been reporting on Australian and international solar energy news ever since.

Comments

  1. Geoff Miell says

    On Friday (Oct 16), on ABC NSW channel 20 within the NSW 7pm News session was broadcast the following 2:25 duration segment:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9T4SrQmnGc

    See also: https://www.hcec.org.au/out-of-the-ashes-ii

    The ongoing NSW Parliament Public Works Committee inquiry into “Costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories” webpage is found here: https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/inquiries/Pages/inquiry-details.aspx?pk=2556

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