NSW Coal Ash Inquiry recommendations

The NSW Public Works Committee released its report and recommendations to conclude its Inquiry into Costs for Remediation of Sites Containing Coal ash Repositories. The need for such an Inquiry was recommended by EJA in our report Unearthing Australia’s Toxic Coal Ash Legacy and has been called for by a range of community groups and advocates.  

The Committee’s recommendations are a step in the right direction for reforms around coal ash dump management, transparency of information, and developing a coal ash reuse market. Some of these important steps which were proposed by EJA, include 

  • release of baseline environmental studies undertaken when power stations were sold to determine the extent of contamination at point of sale and the government’s remediation obligations for that contamination prior to sale;  
  • public release of information from the NSW EPA on the quantity of coal ash stored, produced, and the destination and purpose of coal ash reused;  
  • public release of reports submitted to Dams Safety NSW by power station operators and ash dam assessments and responses undertaken by Dam Safety NSW;  
  • that EPA conduct and publish a study of surface and groundwater around all coalfired power stations and associated coal ash repositories, and their potential impacts on the surrounding environment; 
  • that NSW Health immediately undertake an epidemiological assessment of the health of residents living near coal ash dumps and publish that study by the end of 2022.  

The Committee made an important series of findings, including that the decision and handling of the closure of the Myuna Bay Sports and Recreation Centres in 2019 was inadequate, and acknowledged that coal ash is a valuable resource whose reuse is supported by a range of stakeholders.  

The Committee clearly understood the risks associated with poor regulation and management of coal ash repositories in NSW, and lack of mechanisms to develop and foster a coal ash reuse market. 

At times the Committee was very critical of the ways in which regulatory bodies such as the NSW EPA and Dams Safety NSW have treated the NSW community’s concerns about risks associated with living next to these enormous, poorly constructed toxic sites.  

However, there are two disappointing aspects to the Committee’s report and recommendations.  

The first is that in many respects the recommendations “kick the can down the road” rather than attempt to achieve a robust outcome. For example, the process for a newly established coal ash reuse taskforce to review regulation affecting coal ash reuse sounds good in theory. However, one of the key aspects of this Inquiry has been relegated to the taskforce to work out later. 

The second, and biggest, disappointment from the Committee’s recommendations and report is that there has been a distinct failure to answer the question on the costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories – that is, the reason the Inquiry was initiated 

It is unclear why the NSW government failed to provide the committee of inquiry with an estimate of the government’s liability for and prospective timing of expenditure for remediation of coal ash repositories. To use the NSW Treasury’s own words, this issue continues to be an ‘uncalculated contingent liability’ for the NSW taxpayer.  

The NSW government has some six months to respond to the Committee’s recommendations. They must provide the community with the figures needed to help us understand the financial risks involved to the NSW taxpayer.  

EJA is pleased to have had several of the recommendations we put to the Committee in our submission and subsequent appearance at a public hearing in September 2020 reflected in the Committee’s final report and recommendations.  

The NSW coal ash inquiry is an important first step in coal ash regulatory reform in NSW. We look forward to continuing to work towards achieving best practice comprehensive remediation and reuse practices to remove this waste and protect community and environmental health.  

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