Community groups who fear the New South Wales coal ash Inquiry will be a wasted opportunity if the government doesn’t act to implement its advice, want four key recommendations adopted they say will protect health and environment and create job opportunities for coal power generating regions.
The paper, authored by lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia and backed by the Coal-ash Community Alliance and Hunter Community Environment Centre, provides a blueprint for best practice implementation of four key recommendations from the Inquiry.
Without those recommendations in place, the groups say communities who live near coal-fired power stations will continue to live with health and environmental pollution impacts, and will miss out on opportunities for coal ash reuse to provide local jobs and economic growth in regions of NSW.
The NSW EPA made commitments during the inquiry process, in response to concerns raised by the community at public hearings held in Sydney and Lake Macquarie last year, about the lived-experience of environmental and public health impacts stemming from coal-ash waste leachate and dust in the Lake Macquarie, Lithgow and Hunter Valley regions.
The Public Works committee issued a total of 16 recommendations which have been welcomed by environment and community groups, including the Lake Macquarie and Central Coast based Coal-ash Community Alliance and the Hunter Community Environment Centre who have been investigating coal-ash impacts on waterways in NSW since 2018.
The key recommendations discussed in Environmental Justice Australia’s paper are:
- That NSW Health immediately undertake an epidemiological assessment of the health of residents near coal ash dams to establish health impacts of coal ash and publish by 31 December 2022.
- That the NSW Environment Protection Authority commission a comprehensive and independent assessment of the environmental impacts of coal ash dams to provide a better understanding of the issues and to inform best practice remediation.
- That the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment establish a coal ash reuse taskforce comprised of state government agencies, unions, industry stakeholders and community groups to lead development of a strategy to achieve at least 80 percent reuse of coal ash produced in New South Wales, and report by 2022.
- That the newly established coal ash reuse taskforce inquire into and review regulations affecting coal ash reuse, including:
- the stability and regulation of ash dams
- waste standards to ensure that coal ash is not contaminated with other waste, and
- land remediation, including the state and effectiveness of current capping, the current and future risk of contamination into the surrounding environment, and impacts of vegetation cover to ensure the safe and beneficial reuse of coal ash while promoting strong environmental and public health standards.
Lee Rogers, Dora Creek resident and member of the Coal-ash Community Alliance said:
“We want to make sure our community isn’t left with an enormous health and environmental burden when these power stations close. We also want to see a just transition for workers in the industry as it inevitably moves towards renewables. We all have family and friends who will be impacted.”
Bruce Derkenne, Wangi resident and member of the Coal-ash Community Alliance said:
“Our communities, who have been generating coal-fired power for New South Wales for decades, also bear the health and environmental impacts that come along with that. We have long been concerned about the contamination of our air and waterways from toxic and poorly managed coal ash dumps.
“Every time a south-westerly blows, you can see the toxic dry ash blowing off the uncovered dumps towards people’s homes. We have a right to know what the health impacts are from breathing in that muck.”
Jo Lynch, Coordinator of the Hunter Community Environment Centre:
“The manufacture of lightweight construction materials from recycled coal-ash will provide jobs for coal regions and immediately begin reducing pollution from NSW biggest waste stream.”
Jocelyn McGarity, lawyer from Environmental Justice Australia said:
“It’s critical that the New South Wales government doesn’t squander this opportunity to adopt the inquiry recommendations in full, and ensure they are implemented in a way that results in better environmental outcomes and builds community confidence in how coal ash is managed.
“The inquiry found that to date, the government has demonstrated a complete disregard for the health of its citizens, and government responses to environmental concerns has been ‘frustrating’.
“The government can now correct this by empowering its agencies and departments to undertake best practice assessments of the impacts of coal ash, develop comprehensive and transparent guidelines for ongoing coal ash management and remediation and create the proposed Coal Ash Reuse Taskforce to safeguard community consultation going forward.
“We’ve outlined a clear blueprint for how the government can achieve meaningful outcomes for the community. It must now do this without delay.”
Coal ash is a toxic residual waste product produced by burning coal and accounts for nearly one-fifth of Australia’s waste stream. Coal-burning power stations in New South Wales (NSW) generate approximately 4.8-5.5 million tonnes of coal ash annually. It is disposed of into emplacement facilities, or ‘coal ash dams’ at each coal-burning power station.
For the past five years, there has been a growing awareness of the significant contamination risks presented by NSW coal ash dams and the failure by both government and industry to properly management these risks.
In March 2019, the NSW government announced it was closing the Myuna Bay Sport and Recreation Centre due to fears the Eraring power station’s coal ash dam could pose a risk in the event of an earthquake. The decision angered the community and was later found by a Public Works Committee to have been made with no transparency and inadequate community consultation. Despite the risk, the Eraring ash dam was approved for expansion in December 2019.
Sustained campaigning by community groups, including the Coal-ash Community Alliance, the Hunter Community Environment Centre and Environmental Justice Australia led to the NSW Legislative Council announcing an inquiry into coal ash waste in October 2019.
From February 2020, the NSW Public Works Committee inquired into the costs of remediating coal ash dams at Mount Piper, Bayswater, Liddell, Vales Point and Eraring power stations.
Three days of public parliamentary hearings were held in October 2020. Community health and environment groups, Government agencies (such as the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Dams Safety NSW and NSW Treasury), regulatory experts and industry gave evidence at the hearings. As part of the Inquiry the NSW Government acknowledged that contaminated sites such as coal ash dams ‘may threaten human health and the environment, limit land use or increase development costs’.
The Committee’s Final Report was released on 22 March 2021. The Final Report made 16 recommendations, all of which Environmental Justice Australia broadly supports. The NSW Government must respond to the findings and recommendations contained in the Final Report by 22 September 2021.