Environmental lawyers are calling for the NSW Environment Minister to pause the assessment process for the coal ash dump expansion at AGL’s Bayswater power station until the outcomes of the coal ash inquiry are known, as hearings begin today.
Recommendations from the NSW Parliament’s Inquiry into the Costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories could have important implications for the future of coal ash waste management and reuse, which should inform planning proposals like the Bayswater ash dam expansion.
AGL’s proposal to expand coal ash recycling by 1 million tonnes per year and establish a waste disposal site for salt cake ignores hazards and fails to comply with NSW law, according to a coal ash expert commissioned by public interest lawyers, Environmental Justice Australia.
The expert analysis and EJA assessment find the plan’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) shows ‘alarming’ failure to address hazards or fulfil its obligations under the New South Wales Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. The analysis also finds the EIS has stark gaps in information and doesn’t contain important details for the government or public to make informed decisions, nor understand how the project’s risks will be managed.
AGL is proposing to expand its coal ash recycling operations to reuse up to 1 million tonnes per annum of coal ash. The EIS required AGL to explain how it would either increase market demand for coal ash or create new markets. However AGL has done neither. Rather, the EIS makes it clear that coal ash reuse is a market problem that the market will, presumably, resolve.
The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has taken onboard EJA and other groups’ concerns about the lack of information in the EIS regarding AGLs intended reuse rate. DPIE is requiring AGL to prepare further comment and clarity on its assessment of coal ash recycling opportunities.
Bronya Lipski, lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia, said:
“Not only is the approval of the Bayswater coal ash dam expansion going ahead before the coal ash inquiry has begun, there are serious gaps in AGL’s proposal that could put the local community and environment at risk from things like groundwater contamination.
“To protect the community, the NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, must stop this proposal in its tracks until the recommendations from the coal ash inquiry are known.
“Environmental impact assessment ought to be a comprehensive, robust process that leaves no stone unturned but there are striking gaps in AGL’s proposal. The EIS fails to provide adequate detail so the public and the government can determine and mitigate risks.
“AGL is required in the EIS process to explain how it would reuse coal ash or create new markets that would do so. Its EIS fails to describe in any detail how this would be done. It also fails to provide any detailed information on groundwater flows, recharge areas or discharge areas, or information on the aquifers that could be affected.
“Our analysis also found the proposal to build landfill for salt cakes had serious shortcomings, including permanent water contamination risks and lack of appropriate lining to prevent environmental degradation.
“Environmental impact statements should inform people, not deny them information. AGL must address the alarming gaps in its EIS to ensure it complies with legal requirements. The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment must also extend the public submission process accordingly, and postpone the decision–making process until the final report for the NSW coal ash inquiry is released.”
When coal is burnt to make electricity, it produces tens of thousands of tonnes of toxic ash waste. Coal ash is one of Australia’s biggest waste streams and a huge risk to human and environmental health.
The New South Wales Parliament is currently holding an inquiry into coal ash. Established in October 2019, the Inquiry set out to investigate and report on the costs for remediation of coal ash repositories in New South Wales. It will consider economic and employment opportunities associated with, among other things, coal ash reuse. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the committee has postponed its site visit and hearing in Lake Macquarie.
EJA’s position is that the Inquiry’s recommendations on the opportunities associated with coal ash reuse are delivered, and the NSW government has had the opportunity to respond to those recommendations, before Bayswater’s assessment is finalised. This will provide decision makers for the Baywater upgrade with an opportunity to consider AGL’s intentions for coal ash reuse for Bayswater and whether that accords with the NSW government’s intentions.