One key pollution source that we have been working to address is coal ash — the toxic by-product of coal-fired power that is polluting our air and leaching into waterways.

Throughout early February, we visited affected communities on Australia’s east coast for a series of community forums and meetings with politicians and experts. Joining us was Lisa Evans, a senior attorney from our counterpart in the US, Earthjustice. Lisa is a legal expert in hazardous waste law and advocacy, with more than 20 years’ experience working on coal ash.  It was an excellent opportunity to have Lisa bring her knowledge and experience here to share with us and the communities most impacted by toxic coal ash.

A shared history 

Lisa’s team at Earthjustice were successful in getting tough federal regulations on coal ash passed by the Obama administration, following a catastrophic coal ash disaster. In 2008, at a power station in Tennessee, a coal ash dam wall suddenly collapsed and 4.9 million tonnes of coal ash sludge swept away multiple houses, filled two rivers, and destroyed a residential community. Clean-up of the coal ash took years and cost over US$1 billion. More than 40 clean-up workers died of illnesses allegedly caused by exposure to the toxic ash during the clean-up, and more than 200 remain ill, ten years after the disaster.

In Australia, we’ve had coal ash pipes spill thousands of litres of toxic slurry into rivers, coal ash dust blow over and choke communities, and waterways like Lake Macquarie in NSW polluted with heavy metals. And now there are fears that the Eraring ash dump on Lake Macquarie could fail in the event of an earthquake and swamp surrounding communities in toxic ash waste, just like what happened in the US.

At each forum, Lisa shared with us her experience of coal ash waste and regulation in the US. We talked with communities living next to ash dumps about how coal ash is being stored, managed and rehabilitated in Australia now compared with how it should be, what risks coal ash poses to communities and the environment, and how coal ash can be reused and the economic and employment opportunities that could create. We also heard about what best practice coal ash management and rehabilitation looks like in the US, as well as the types of disasters that have occurred when ash dumps fail.

Listening to Lisa’s experiences in the US made me feel the trinity of anger, hope and motivation to take action in Australia.

People power

Even though there have been some terrible disasters in the US, the way these disasters have been responded to by people and government is a great success story. Communities mobilised to raise their voices and pressure the government to pass laws that protect their air, water and health.

The result is that all coal ash dumps in the US are now required to be managed in such a way to prevent pollution of air, water and soil. This involves power stations being required to excavate coal ash and move it into a safe repository lined with impermeable barriers to prevent leachate. These repositories must be capped to prevent pollution into air. Companies have been held responsible for the full cost of complying with these new measures, as well as for cleaning up existing contamination.

Some US states, such as Illinois, have passed legislation to make sure that coal ash dumps are managed and rehabilitated to clean up existing pollution, and prevent harm to the communities and environments that surround them.

Just Transition

Perhaps the best news to come from the US experience is that coal ash management and remediation also creates jobs as part of a just transition to the next economy. In some places, best practice coal ash remediation creates up to four jobs per hectare of ash. There are more than 500 hectares of coal ash on Lake Macquarie alone! After bearing the pollution burden of coal for decades, environmental justice for communities like the NSW Central Coast and Latrobe Valley in Victoria should include the employment and economic benefits of thorough environmental remediation of toxic ash waste dumps.

In Australia, we can experience the benefits of new laws, regulations, economic and employment opportunities without waiting for a catastrophic disaster first.

How can I take action?

Changing the law to make sure our air, water and communities are protected from toxic coal ash waste involves three main things:

  1. The information: We need inquiries into coal ash dumps in each state to fully understand the health and environmental risks and the threats and opportunities of cleaning them up, especially in the context of mine rehabilitation. The NSW Parliament launched an Inquiry last year. With a parliamentary inquiry we can:
  • Comprehensively investigate the current and future threat of coal ash.
  • Make coal-fired power stations clean up existing contamination.
  • Develop national guidelines that enforce best practice management of coal ash waste.
  • Ensure power station operators pay a financial assurance and plan now for rehabilitation.
  • Ensure all information about ash dumps is publicly available.
  1. The plan: We need a plan for how state governments can regulate ash dump owners and operators to prepare best practice rehabilitation, closure plans and post-closure plans in consultation with communities who live near these toxic sites.
  2. The political will: State governments won’t investigate these issues without pressure from the community.

There are two key things you can do to help secure the information and the political will for the plan we need:

  1. Call, email or write a letter to your local MP. Let them know who you are and where you live, tell them your concerns about coal ash. Tell them the coal ash management and rehabilitation solutions you would like them to advocate for, and request a meeting with them to discuss this. EJA can support you to write this letter and attend the meeting with you. Just ask us!
  2. Contact your EPA or Department of Environment and demand they release all documents and information related to coal ash waste in your state. We can’t advocate for solutions if we don’t know what’s going on first!

If every one of us takes these small actions, we will empower our politicians to be champions for solutions on this issue, have all the information we need to advocate for solutions and have a plan for coal ash remediation as part of a just transition. 

For a healthy future for communities around Australia.