By Carrie Fellner
The NSW environment watchdog has launched an investigation into revelations a coal waste product sold by AGL to “various markets” has tested positive for elevated levels of toxic substances including chromium, cadmium and copper.
It comes as environmentalists and unions expressed “alarm” at the energy giant’s announcement on Thursday that it would indefinitely suspend sales of the coal ash from its Bayswater and Liddell power stations in the Hunter Valley as a precaution.
Coal ash is the residue that remains after coal is burned to generate electricity.
The waste product is either disposed of at on-site dams or sold and reused, mainly as road base or in concrete products.
“The EPA considers this to be a serious matter and has launched a full investigation,” an EPA spokesperson said.
“AGL will be required to provide its coal ash testing records as well as their records that indicate where and how much coal ash has been distributed off site.”
In the statement, AGL revealed that its decision was prompted by testing of the coal ash, which showed levels of several heavy metals exceeded limits set by the Environment Protection Authority.
However, external expert advice indicated the levels did not pose a risk to public or worker health, the statement said, and were “unlikely” to pose an unacceptable risk to the environment, given how the coal ash was used.
“We acknowledge failures in our own practices and a thorough review is underway,” AGL executive general manager of group operations Doug Jackson said, adding that the company had notified the EPA, Safework NSW and NSW Health.
AGL had contacted all businesses that purchased the ash, asking them to cease distribution.
“They have indicated to us that their products that have been sold into various markets have met all of the required standards,” Mr Jackson said.
But environmentalists reacted with surprise and frustration. Bronya Lipski, a lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia, said the public had reason to be concerned.
“It’s pretty disturbing that this has happened in the first place,” she said.
“We really don’t know where [the ash] has gone and what that means from a public health perspective. It raises some pretty significant questions around the process and the EPA’s role.”
Shares in AGL dipped 2.04 per cent from a near five-month high to $20.69 in the wake of the announcement.
The Electrical Trades Union (ETU), which represents power station workers, had not been informed about the elevated test results prior to Thursday’s announcement. ETU secretary Justin Page labelled the revelations “alarming”.
“This coal ash has been handled on site … they’ve stopped this going out to other companies [but] what are they doing in terms of their own employees?,” he said.
It’s understood the company has commissioned a human health and ecological risk assessment.
“We have engaged independent scientific experts to undertake testing of AGL’s coal ash and will ensure these results are fully disclosed,” Mr Jackson said.
The sale of coal ash in NSW is governed by the Coal Ash Order 2014, which sets strict criteria around levels of heavy metals in the product, as well as requirements for sampling and reporting.
This story was published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 January 2019.