Coal ash dumps a 'ticking time bomb': Environmental Justice Australia Report

A parliamentary inquiry is needed into coal ash dumps to better understand their impact and to make recommendations to protect human and environmental health, a new report into the management of coal ash has recommended.

Unearthing Australia's Toxic Coal Ash Legacy, argues that poor government regulation and management of coal ash dumps - such as those near Vales Point and Eraring power stations - 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," Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Bronya Lipski said.

The 60-page report, produced by Environmental Justice Australia, cites research and water sampling done by the Hunter Community Environment Centre earlier this year that 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.

"Coal ash dumps are a ticking time bomb. All Australian governments need to act now, not wait for a disaster," Ms Lipski said.

"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."

Toxic legacy: Earing Power station ash dam. Picture: Environment Justice Australia.

Toxic legacy: Earing Power station ash dam. Picture: Environment Justice Australia.

The report also recommends:

  • 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 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.

Delta Electricity spokesman Steve Gurney disputed the findings of the Hunter Community Environment Centre report and said Vales Point Power Station operated in accordance with strict environmental licence conditions.

'Environmental Justice Australia is a group of anti-coal activists with one objective, to shut down coal fired power stations', Mr Gurney said.

An Environment Protection Authority spokesman said all NSW coal-fired power stations are subject to stringent legally enforceable conditions, outlined in their environment protection licences, as well as requirements under environmental legislation, to protect the community and environment.

"The licences for the Eraring and Vales Point power stations include comprehensive and regular monitoring of ash dam water quality for a range of pollutants - including selenium and cadmium," he said