Landmark report calls for Australia-first coal ash cleanup industry

In a landmark report published today, parties from across the political spectrum have come together to recognise that coal ash, a by-product of coal-fired power, is a toxic waste product that needs better regulation.

The NSW Parliamentary Inquiry recommends the establishment of a new coal ash reuse taskforce, consisting of government agencies, unions, industry stakeholders and community groups, to oversee the regulation and clean-up of the 200 million tonnes of coal ash in NSW dams, and to foster a new industry in coal ash reuse in a range of building materials.

Coal ash represents almost 20% of Australia’s total waste stream, with only around 20% of it being reused in NSW, compared with the global average of around 53%. 

The committee that ran the Inquiry, comprising members of Government and Labor as well as Greens MP Abigail Boyd who initiated the inquiry, also acknowledges for the first time that coal ash presents a risk to the environment and human health, and calls for the remediation of existing coal ash dumps across the state.

Abigail Boyd, NSW Greens MP & spokesperson for Coal, Mining & Gas, said:

‘This is a landmark report that represents a historic turning point for NSW.

‘Coal ash from coal-fired power stations is 20% of our national waste stream, but we just dump the vast majority of it into unlined dams right next to communities and waterways.

‘We have heard from experts from around the world on the risks that coal ash poses to public health and the environment, and the best practice regulation for its storage and reuse.

‘This report shows a genuine willingness from parties across the political spectrum to minimise the health and environmental risks posed by toxic coal ash dams, and to provide transparency over what happens to the hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal ash sitting in unlined dams across the state.

‘The potential for a coal ash remediation and reuse industry is enormous. We could see the communities currently suffering the health impacts of this toxic waste instead given the tools for thousands of jobs that will clean up their regions and put this currently discarded product to use. 

‘The recommendations of this inquiry are backed by parties across the political spectrum, from the Greens to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. The Government must now put its weight behind this new coal ash reuse industry and commit to cleaning up these toxic coal ash dams across the state.’

Background: 

  • Currently, 200 million tonnes of coal ash are stored in NSW, predominantly in unlined dams which leak toxic heavy metals into the environment, including into Lake Macquarie.  This waste is growing by 3.8 million tonnes each year.
  • The committee also heard from industry experts and power station operators about the opportunity to create a thriving coal ash reuse industry in NSW, with Australia lagging significantly behind other countries when it comes to reusing our coal ash.
  • Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to coal ash reuse. Coal ash represents almost 20% of Australia’s total waste stream, with only around 20% of it being reused in NSW. Compare this to the global average of around 53%, and Netherlands and Germany at 100% and 97% respectively. The Inquiry recommends a minimum reuse target of 80%.
  • The Committee has recommended the establishment of a ‘coal ash reuse taskforce’, comprised of state government agencies, unions, industry stakeholders and community groups to lead development of a strategy to achieve at least 80% reuse of coal ash produced in NSW. 
  • Coal ash can be recycled into a range of building materials, creating economic and employment opportunities in regional areas, while also transforming an environmental hazard into useful products. Main uses of recycled coal ash include road and pavement construction, concrete manufacture, bricks and tiles.
  • The taskforce will also be tasked with recommending new regulations for coal ash dams, measures to constrain health and environmental risks, and best practice for land remediation of coal-fired power station sites.
  • The Inquiry also recommends that NSW Health immediately investigates the health impacts of coal ash on nearby NSW communities, and that the NSW EPA commission an independent investigation into the environmental impacts of coal ash dams.
  • The Public Works Committee’s Inquiry into the costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories was initiated by Greens MLC Abigail Boyd in 2019, following her discovery that the Government retained some liability for contamination at coal-fired power stations despite their privatisation.

The Inquiry’s report can be found here.

Images of coal ash dumps in NSW can be found in the Hunter Community Environment Centre’s media pack here

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