Media release

Shocking new research reveals the toxic legacy of coal ash waste across Australia

July 01, 2019


New research released today reveals communities across the country are at serious risk from poorly managed coal ash waste – the toxic by-product of coal-fired power that accounts for nearly one-fifth of Australia’s waste stream.

Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacy reveals shocking flaws in the management and regulation of coal ash dumps and is the first comprehensive national study of coal ash waste management in Australia.

“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,” report author and Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Bronya Lipski said.

“Lax government regulation and poor management of coal ash dumps has led to the contamination of groundwater, rivers, lakes and aquatic ecosystems as well as toxic air pollution from dried out dumps.

“Communities closest to coal-fired power stations bear the greatest health and environmental burden. Some of the ash dumps in Australia are very close to communities, including residential areas, schools and recreation centres. Most are extremely close to waterways,” she said.

Earlier this year, research and water sampling done by the Hunter Community Environment Centre found the creek that takes overflow from the Eraring ash dump had a selenium concentration of 110 parts per million, more than 55 times the level recommended to protect fish and birds.

In March this year, the much-loved Myuna Bay Sports and Recreation Centre in NSW was closed suddenly due to structural fears that Origin Energy’s adjacent Eraring coal ash dump may break its dam wall in the event of an earthquake.

“If the Eraring ash dump wall collapsed and flooded surrounding communities with toxic coal ash slurry, the devastation would be unimaginable. Coal ash dumps are a ticking time bomb. All Australian governments need to act now, not wait for a disaster.”

“Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals – including mercury, lead, arsenic, selenium and chromium – that have been linked to asthma, heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, nervous system damage and stroke,” she said.

A United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) risk assessment found living near unlined ash dumps increases the risk of damage to the liver, kidney, lungs and other organs when people are exposed to toxins at concentrations far above safe levels.

The report also makes recommendations for national best practice management and regulation and provides communities with information to be used when engaging with regulators and operators about coal ash dump issues that affect them.

“State Parliaments need to initiate inquiries into ash dumps to comprehensively investigate the current and future threat, make sure rigorous solutions are determined to clean up contamination, and start planning for rehabilitation and closure that adheres to best practice standards,” Bronya Lipski concluded.

There are coal ash dumps in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia.

Key findings

  • Most Australian power stations dispose of ash in the most environmentally harmful way – as wet sludge into predominately unlined dump sites, or directly into mines.
  • According to the US EPA, the extent of contamination from ash dump sites doesn’t reveal itself for some 70 – 100 years after the site became operational.
  • There is no entirely safe way to dispose of coal ash, only a less harmful method which needs careful management including keeping it dry, in a thoroughly lined dump site, well away from surface and groundwater.
  • Conditions for ash dump management differ from state-to-state, and in each state, from power station to power station.
  • There is no best-practice management standard for ash dumps in any state, or at a national level.
  • There is no requirement that power station operators prepare ash dump rehabilitation, closure and post-closure plans well before closure of the power station occurs.
  • Access to information about ash dumps is extremely limited, including access to groundwater monitoring data and ash management plans which have to be acquired through Freedom of Information laws.
  • The only state that requires financial assurances be held for ash dumps is Victoria.

Media opportunities

  • Interview with key coal ash researcher, Environmental Justice Australia lawyer, Bronya Lipski
  • Interview with US expert and legal advisor on coal ash, Lisa Evans from Earthjustice
  • Interviews with locals who live near coal ash dumps
  • Aerial footage of ash dumps can be provided

Embargoed report summary can be found here and full report here.

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