Coal ash dumps and community health


Coal ash is the toxic waste that doesn’t go into the air when coal is burnt to make electricity.

At most power stations coal ash is mixed with saline waste water and pumped to a muddy, toxic lake near the facility. It is a toxic cocktail of substances including mercury, lead, arsenic, selenium and chromium.

This sludge can leak into rivers and aquifers, contaminating water needed by farmers and the environment.

When it is left to dry out, winds can blow the toxic dust onto nearby communities.

Coal ash is linked to asthma, heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and stroke.

Australia produces 13 million tonnes of ash waste annually from coal combustion, according to the Ash Development Association of Australia’s 2015 Coal Combustion Products Factbook.

Port Augusta, SA

Although the Northern Power Station in Port Augusta, South Australia, closed in May 2016, local residents are still living with the coal-fired power station’s toxic legacy.

The Flinders Power Community Reference Group says efforts to remediate the ash dump have failed. Local residents say they continue to suffer the economic, health and environmental consequences of living close to a coal-fired power station.

The ash dump is no longer being kept damp, so when the weather gets hot it dries out and strong winds whip up the coal ash – laden with heavy metals and toxic materials – and spread it all over houses, gardens and people.

Local Josie Price was diagnosed with asthma about 20 years ago and told ABC TV’s 7.30 her condition had worsened. “The last few months the coughing’s just non-stop most of the day,” Ms Price said. “I’m entitled to breathe fresh air — I’m not getting it. I want my fresh air and so does the rest of Port Augusta.”

NSW central coast

Gary Blaschke OAM, a community disability advocate from Lake Munmorah on the NSW central coast, is concerned about the coal ash dams near Vales Point power station and the closed Munmorah power station.

“None of the authorities, including the EPA, Central Coast Council or local political representatives seem to think much about the equivalent to 455 Olympic swimming pools of toxic fly ash being stored in 50-year-old, unlined dams and currently being covered over and hidden with dirt,” he wrote in the Central Coast Community News.

Gary suspects a long stretch of dying trees along the main road outside Delta Electricity’s Vales Point power station has been poisoned by leaks and overflows from the nearby ash dam. “If it gets under the highway here it will go into the Tuggerah Lakes system. We need to have some soil sampling done and we need better air monitoring,” he told EJA for our Toxic & Terminal report.

Gary said the dams overflow into Lake Macquarie every time there is heavy rain.

“We need to know how long these ash dams are going to be here on the Central Coast. Are they going to expand? Where are they going to put this fly ash in the future?”

After dust from an ash dump at the Australia’s largest power station, Eraring, was blown across nearby central coast communities by strong winds in September 2016, the NSW EPA fined Origin Energy just $15,000.

Hunter Valley, NSW

In May 2018 the NSW EPA fined AGL $15,000 for a slurry spill from its ash dam at Australia’s oldest operating power station, Liddell.  It wasn’t the first time AGL’s ash dam has leaked. In fact the EPA has imposed four pollution reduction programs on the ash dump in the last five years. A compliance audit last year found AGL was not managing it properly.

Even though these are known failures, even though these are repeat offences, Australia’s biggest energy company was slapped on the wrist with a $15,000 fine.

Latrobe Valley, Victoria

Research by EJA lawyer Bronya Lipski shows the ash ponds associated with the Latrobe Valley’s coal-fired power stations are contaminating Gippsland’s air, groundwater and river systems.

The ash waste from the power stations in the Latrobe Valley is sent by pipe to areas including worked-out sections of the brown coal mines near the stations.

Plans to rehabilitate the now-closed Hazelwood power station’s coal ash dumps are worryingly similar to the ill-fated arrangements instituted at Port Augusta (see above).

In 2015, a rupture in an ash disposal pipeline at Yallourn power station led to 8.6 megalitres of ash sludge being dumped into the Morwell River. EPA Victoria fined Yallourn’s owner, EnergyAustralia, just $7,584 for breaches of its licence conditions.

Residents in nearby Yallourn North and Newborough have complained for years about coal ash falling into their homes.

Fugitive dust from the vast open coal ash dumps at Yallourn is presenting a potentially serious threat to human health in the neighbouring community at Yallourn North. The facility is situated alarmingly close to places where dozens of people live, work and play.

“Within 500 metres of the uncontained ash, there are more than 150 houses, a town hall and oval, two parks, a café, a charity shop and a primary school with outdoor recreation areas,” Bronya said.

The primary school, attended by more than 100 children (an especially sensitive demographic), is located only 250 metres from the northern edge of the disposed ash.

There has been limited groundwater testing at Yallourn, but what has been done indicates extensive contamination of the site.

“Groundwater appears to flow primarily to the south of the coal ash landfills and ponds and is running into the Latrobe River,” Bronya said.

“But even though there is evidence that leaking ash dumps are contaminating important local waterways, a re-examination of the coal ash management strategies of the Latrobe Valley’s three power stations is not part of the Victorian EPA’s current review of power station licences. It should be. It is entirely within the scope of the current review.

“These ash dumps should not be left as a toxic legacy for local communities,” she said.


EJA’s supplementary submission to Victorian EPA power station licence review (May 2018)

EJA’s supplementary submission on ash dump rehabilitation (April 2018)

Done and dusted? Cleaning up coal ash in Port Augusta: a report by Greenpeace (March 2018)

Coal ash: the toxic threat to our health and environment: a report by Earthjustice (US)