NSW Treasury has failed to provide information to a government inquiry tasked with investigating the costs of cleaning up the toxic by-products of coal-fired power stations — despite the Inquiry being specifically established for the purpose of discovering those costs.
Lawyers and policy experts at Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) warn that the Inquiry into the costs of coal ash waste, released yesterday by the NSW Public Works Committee, did not receive any estimates from Treasury and so failed to quantify and analyse the costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories.
Among the Inquiry’s findings are that there is widespread support for “reduction in environmental harm”, and it recommends greater public transparency and monitoring on the part of the EPA; the establishment of coal ash reuse measures; and the publication of baseline environmental studies conducted for each operating power station to improve transparency.
Yet while the Inquiry’s recommendations are an important step, they do not quantify the costs of reducing the toxic burden of coal ash dumps and to minimise the threat to human and environmental health — nor do they answer important questions about the costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories, warn lawyers.
Bronya Lipski, EJA lawyer and author of Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacy, said:
“The NSW government failed to provide the inquiry with the information it needed to address its terms of reference. This is an alarming outcome for a process that is designed to foster transparency on a substantial financial liability associated with public works.
“It is unclear how hard the inquiry committee pressed on NSW Treasury to provide the information it needed to address its Terms of Reference. In effect, the Committee has had to conduct its inquiry and prepare its report and recommendations with its hands tied behind its back — without the information vital to its inquiry.
“After this lengthy process the NSW community is in no better position to understand how much they’ll be charged for cleaning up these toxic sites. There has been a distinct failure to answer the question on the costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories.
“To use the NSW Treasury’s own words, this issue continues to be an ‘uncalculated contingent liability’ for NSW taxpayer. 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. It is incumbent on the NSW government to provide those figures in the next six months as it prepares its response to the Committee’s recommendations.
“There is still a disturbing lack of information about coal ash dumps in the public domain in NSW, and people need to know more about how they are regulated, who is responsible, who’s footing the bill, and what comprehensive rehabilitation and closure planning should look like.”
This inquiry was established to shed some much-needed light on an opaque regulatory area and further clarity on how the NSW Government, and the EPA, might deal with the toxic waste of coal fired power stations. EJA provided state and federal governments a blueprint for national guidelines and recommendations, and legal experts welcome the news that some have been recommended by this Inquiry.
Coal ash is an enormous toxic legacy issue for Australia that largely flies under the radar, despite it being one of Australia’s biggest waste problems and a huge risk to human and environmental health. Australia needs adequate coal ash dump management, rehabilitation, closure and post-closure planning to be used when engaging with regulators on coal ash dump matters including licence condition amendments, expansions, rehabilitation plans and proposals for new ash dumps.
EJA welcomes the Committee’s recommendations regarding transparency of information for the NSW community proposed by EJA, including the:
- 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 (Recommendation 16);
- 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 (Recommendation 14);
- public release of reports submitted to Dams Safety NSW by power station operators and ash dam assessments and responses undertaken by Dam Safety NSW (Recommendation 5);
- EPA conduct and publish a study of surface and groundwater around all coal fired power stations and associated coal ash repositories, and their potential impacts on the surrounding environment (Recommendation 3).
The Inquiry hearings were held against the backdrop of AGL Macquarie’s application to expand the Bayswater power station coal ash dam, for which EJA obtained and submitted expert analysis. The hearings were also held against the back drop of inadequate fines issued by the NSW EPA to Vales Point power station. EPA issued two fines totally $30,000 to Vales Point after a large stockpile of asbestos and other waste was spread over the 30000sqm area at the power station’s ash dam at a time when the power station sought millions of taxpayer dollars to keep its aging power station operational.
The Inquiry findings vindicate the experiences of communities in New South Wales who live near coal-fired power stations and are concerned about this huge toxic waste issue on their doorstep. Communities across the country are at serious risk from poorly managed coal ash waste and directly suffer from the shocking flaws in the regulation of coal ash dumps.
The Inquiry committee is critical of the ways bodies including the NSW EPA and Dams Safety NSW have treated community concerns. Its comments acknowledge the risks posed by these enormous toxic sites and the need to protect human and environmental health.
However, the Inquiry missed an opportunity to detail best practice laws and has disappointed community expectations on what this inquiry would deliver. For example, a key issue has been relegated to the taskforce to decide on at a later date, being in effect an advisory body to determine what coal ash repository remediation ought to look like.
Environmental Justice Australia released a comprehensive national study of coal ash waste management in Australia, Unearthing Australia’s Toxic Coal Ash Legacy, in 2019 and has been calling for Parliamentary Inquiries in all states that house coal ash dumps.
Newcastle community group Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC) also released their 2019 research into water contamination from NSW coal ash dumps. Out of the Ashes II is a broad investigation into the environmental impacts of seven out of eight coal ash dumps in NSW. HCECs investigation found contamination of heavy metals in all of the waterways surrounding the coal ash dumps at which tests were conducted. Western Sydney University waste scientist Ian Wright, who reviewed HCEC’s work, described the regulation of coal ash in NSW as ‘Dark Ages, Dickensian management of pollution and we need a quantum leap in the management of this.’
Media contact: Kate Lewis, (03) 8341 3110, [email protected]