THERE is no doubt that when the NSW Environment Protection Authority issued a clean-up notice to Delta Electricity in October, after suspected asbestos and other demolition material was found at Vales Point power station, it made that information publicly available. But the chances of anyone finding it were remote.
If it crossed your mind to check if anything interesting had happened at the power station, or if you while away your free hours scrolling through the EPA’s public register – that’s if you are aware it even exists and can locate it on the EPA website – you might have found it, once you had scrolled alphabetically through hundreds of companies to find the power station’s owner, Sunset Power International.
In other words, information that something was amiss at the power station’s ash dam might have been publicly available in October, but not in a way that was useful to the public who most needed to know about it – those living in residential areas near the Lake Macquarie power station.
And that is very unfortunate for a number of reasons.
There have been concerns about the power station’s extensive ash dam area and its proximity to Lake Macquarie and Mannering Lake for many years. When it opened in the early 1960s Vales Point power station was the largest in Australia. The legacy of those decades as the state’s electricity generation warhorse is 400 hectares of ash dam made up of ash – the solid material left after coal is burnt to produce power – made into a slurry and poured into a purpose-built “dam”.
Delta Electricity calls the ash “inert”, but Environmental Justice Australia has cited American research to show ash contains toxic chemicals including lead, arsenic and mercury, that is leaching from ash dams into groundwater in America and causing a growing environmental scandal.
Delta described the EJA’s concerns about the “toxic legacy” at Vales Point as “mischievous”. But it was the EJA – and not the EPA or Delta – that made public the suspected asbestos and demolition pollution at the power station after finding the clean-up notice while searching for something else.
The other big problem here is public trust in governments and other institutions. Here is another example where that trust is eroded.
This comment was published in the Newcastle Herald on 3 January 2019.