The toxic legacy of coal ash waste in Australia

In July 2019, we released shocking new research that 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 industrial 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.

Our research aims to provide state and federal governments a blueprint for national guidelines and recommendations that should be implemented immediately to reduce the toxic burden of coal ash dumps on Australian communities and minimise the threat to human and environmental health.

It also aims to provide communities with a checklist for 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.

What is coal ash?

Coal-fired power has long been associated with air pollution and climate change. But coal-fired power stations produce another insidious waste problem, hidden in plain sight.

When coal is burnt to make electricity, it produces tens of thousands of tonnes of toxic ash waste.

At most coal-fired power stations in Australia, coal ash is mixed with saline wastewater and pumped into enormous dumps creating a lethal cocktail of toxic sludge including heavy metals and dangerous pollutants like mercury, lead, arsenic, selenium and chromium.

Coal ash is one of Australia’s biggest waste problems and accounts for nearly one-fifth of the entire nation’s waste stream.


Poor management and lax government regulation

Toxic slurry from poorly managed ash dumps across the country is contaminating water and soil needed by farmers and ecosystems, and leaching into rivers and lakes where our families fish and our children swim. Those dumps left to dry out, are blowing ash dust onto nearby communities who breathe toxic particles deep into their lungs.

Lax government regulation is putting communities that live near coal-fired power stations at serious risk. Coal ash cannot be disposed of safely. Even with best practice methods, there remains a significant contamination risk to the environment and communities.


The health impacts of coal ash waste

The toxins in coal ash have been linked to asthma, heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, nervous system damage and stroke. Although the health and environmental impacts of air pollution are becoming more well known, very little research has been done in Australia on the health and environmental impacts from water and soil contaminated by coal ash.

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.

Coal ash dumps must be carefully and strictly managed and rehabilitated to minimise the risk this toxic substance poses to human and environmental health.

Australian governments must make these coal-fired power stations thoroughly clean up their act. Poorly constructed ash dumps in Australia, including Eraring, Vales Point, and Loy Yang, should be re-sited, re-constructed and managed to allow for a comprehensive clean up of existing contamination.

Hear from affected communities

“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, Lawyer, EJA


Our recommendations

Australian governments initiate inquiries into coal ash dumps: Australian Parliaments need to initiate inquiries into coal ash dumps to understand the full extent of the toxic threat and make strong recommendations to protect human and environmental health.

Rehabilitation plans: Australian governments should impose an immediate obligation on ash dump owners and operators to prepare best practice rehabilitation, closure plans and post-closure plans in consultation with the communities who live near these toxic sites.

Tougher groundwater regulation: Australian regulators who oversee ash dumps should immediately develop and implement actions to clean up and manage ash dumps causing groundwater contamination, including re-siting operational ash dumps to thoroughly rehabilitate existing sources of contamination to best practice standards.

Safe containment of existing ash dumps: Australian governments should impose immediate obligations on ash dump owners and operators to convert wet dumps to dry ash emplacements.

Bond payments to protect communities: Australian governments should immediately impose a bond or financial assurance on ash dumps to protect Australian communities from bearing the cost burden of poorly managed or poorly rehabilitated ash dumps.

National guidelines: Australian governments should develop and ensure the implementation of enforceable national best practice guidelines for ash dump management, rehabilitation, and closure and post-closure management (as outlined in this report) to mitigate as far as practicable the future threat of contamination of land, groundwater, and surface water and prevent harm to human health.

Transparency and availability of information: Australian governments should make access to information about ash dumps transparent and available to the Australian community, including all existing management plans, details of financial assurance, rehabilitation plans, pollution incidents, fines and other enforcement actions taken by regulators, monitoring data, hydrogeological assessment, predictions for future contamination, and predictions for future land-use planning.

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