THE building industry could hold the key to the removal and rehabilitation of coal ash dams at Eraring and Vales Point power stations.
Hunter Community Environment Centre researcher Paul Winn said emerging technologies were transforming coal ash into lightweight aggregate for the building industry.
"We've been in talks with a number of entrepreneurs who are interested in getting hold of the ash," Mr Winn said.
And that, he said, was good news for residents of Lake Macquarie and the Central Coast who had been concerned about heavy metals in the coal ash, and what would become of the coal ash dams after the power stations shut down.
"People can at least be satisfied that at some time in the future, that issue is going to be dealt with," he said.
Mr Winn is the principal consultant for Hydrocology Environmental Consulting, Australia.
He was lead researcher and author of Hunter Community Environment Centre's Out of the Ashes report last year on pollution allegedly caused by coal-fired power stations in Lake Macquarie.
He has also contributed to a number of NSW government advisory bodies.
Mr Winn was one of the expert speakers at the Power and Pollution: National Community Summit at Point Wolstoncroft at the weekend.
The summit was convened to discuss transition planning and pollution issues around Australia's ageing coal-fired power stations.
Mr Winn said reusing and recycling the coal ash would be a great outcome.
"That, I think, is the ideal solution because it's going to provide jobs for workers affected by the closures [of the power stations], it provides new industries, and it gets rid of the ash," he said.
Processing the coal ash into a building aggregate involves heating the ash to about 1100 degress Celsius which locks the heavy metals into silica in the ash.
"The silica melts and basically binds those metals into a matrix where it can't do any damage," he said.
Mr Winn said there was 60 million tonnes of coal ash in the ash dams around Lake Macquarie.
"So, we've got to get rid of that ash," he said.
The coal ash posed problems, he said, but it was also a "massive resource".
"There are companies in the US going around and buying up coal ash dams for future use," he said.
Mr Winn presented research at the summit highlighting the alleged impacts of power stations on local ecology.
That included data which he said showed that fish and birds in Lake Macquarie had been affected by heavy metals such as selenium, cadmium, zinc, nickel and copper.
He said bio-sampling of white-faced heron feathers from around Mannering Bay found the birds had been affected by heavy metals.
"It's reasonably low level in the overall scheme of things - there are sites around the world that are much more contaminated than Lake Macquarie - but it is having an ecological impact. I think that is what needs to be understood."
Mr Winn said it was important to have perspective.
"We're not catastrophising it. We're not saying don't swim in the lake, and don't eat the fish. What we are saying is these coal-fired power stations have a responsibility to the residents of Lake Macquarie and the users of the lake to make sure that the ecology is not affected."
He said it should be remembered that Eraring (1970s) and Vales Point (1960s) power stations were built at a time when environmental awareness hadn't been developed to today's standards.
Mr Winn said after Eraring and Vales Point closed, he would like to see the ash dams removed and rehabilitated, and the power station sites returned to the public as high-conservation waterfront land.
"I think that would be the ideal outcome," he said.
On the issue of transitioning from coal-fired power to renewables, Mr Winn said it was time for power station communities to make important decisions.
"We need to start the conversation now, not when the transition happens," he said.
Countries such as South Africa and Canada have formed 'just transition commissions' to oversee their country's shift from coal-fired power to renewable power sources.
Mr Winn said Australia could benefit from a similar body.
One thing was certain: coal was on the way out, he said.
"Even without climate change issues, renewables are going to overtake coal just based on price."
Lake could lead nation with 'just transition' from coal
LEADING academics, lawyers and environmental experts tackled the big issues of power station pollution and transitioning to renewable energy at a national forum on Lake Macquarie at the weekend.
About 200 people took part in the Power and Pollution: National Community Summit organised by the Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC) at Point Wolstoncroft.
Residents from power station communities along Australia's east coast attended.
HCEC co-ordinator Jo Lynch said the speakers emphasised that the closure of coal-fired power stations and emergence of renewable energy around Australia was happening faster than anticipated.
They said community input in the decommissioning process could lead to opportunities for regional development and environmental rehabilitation.
The HCEC said a coal-ash reuse industry for the ash stored on the shores of Lake Macquarie would alleviate water pollution, lead to local employment, and eventually allow the sites to be fully rehabilitated and restored to their wetland habitats.
On Sunday, about 20 locals joined a planning and networking session alongside interstate participants which led to the establishment of a community network of coal-power region representatives, from all three states, focussed on creating a 'just transition' for their communities, Ms Lynch said.
"The support and enthusiasm of the Lake Macquarie and Central Cost communities at the summit is a sign that the region is ready to begin working with each other, government and the energy industry to fix legacy pollution issues and see a just transition for the Vales Point and Eraring power stations, and hopefully this region can set a standard for what a just transition could be," she said.