The NSW government’s lacklustre response to recommendations from an inquiry into coal-ash remediation has failed to reassure communities it will act to tackle the issues which pose a risk to the health of residents and the environment.
Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Bronya Lipski said the community had been left behind and it wasn’t clear whether the NSW Environment Protection Authority would adopt best practice to undertake remediation of the toxic waste sites.
“It appears that the NSW government is still kicking the can down the road rather than implementing best-practice outcomes for communities who live near coal ash dams,” Ms Lipski said.
“Best-practice requires genuine community engagement and participation. The government failure to support the creation of a coal ash reuse Taskforce for example, which would include the community, is a blow to public participation.
“And it’s a kick in the guts to stakeholders in the NSW community who want to see a robust coal-ash reuse industry developed to achieve the two-fold benefit of protecting the environment and creating jobs.”
The inquiry into the cost of remediating coal-ash dams at five of the state’s power stations has also failed to shed any light on what it would cost for the government to carry that out.
Following long-term campaigning by Environmental Justice Australia and community groups including the Coal Ash Community Alliance and the Hunter Community Environment Centre, in February 2020, the NSW Public Works Committee launched the inquiry into coal-ash dams at Mount Piper, Bayswater, Liddell, Vales Point and Eraring power stations.
The committee provided 16 recommendations which were welcomed by environment and community groups who have grown increasingly concerned about the toxic waste, but criticised for not going far enough to address the enormous risks and costs associated with poor coal-ash dam management and rehabilitation.
Last month, lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia authored a paper to provide a blueprint for best practice implementation of four key recommendations from the inquiry.
Ms Lipski said the NSW government’s response did not reflect the best practice approached outlined in the report and supported by the Coal Ash Community Alliance and Hunter Community Environment Centre.
“Whilst the NSW EPA commitment to understanding more about coal-ash contamination in NSW is welcomed, this must result in best-practice operation, maintenance and rehabilitation planning for these enormous, toxic sites,” she said.
“How much longer does the NSW government, and EPA, intend to delay genuine development and implementation of rigorous rehabilitation planning and coal as reuse strategies?
“And of course, the elephant in the room here is that the coal ash inquiry was unable to uncover the costs associated with the remediation of coal ash dams in NSW, and the NSW government hasn’t addressed it either. The final kick in the guts is for the public interest in how much the NSW taxpayer will be charged for clean-up.”
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 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 manage 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 responded to the findings and recommendations contained in the Final Report in September 2021.
Media contact: Kathryn Lewis, email@example.com, 0411 670 886