Public transparency from power stations

Today Abigail ordered a call for papers concerning contamination at power stations. As we transition from coal, there are so many unanswered questions about the toxic legacy that is coal ash. 

Abigail said:

Accordingly, I move:

That, under Standing Order 52, there be laid upon the table of the House within 35 days of the date of passing of this resolution the following documents created since 6 June 2019, in electronic format if possible, in the possession, custody or control of the Treasurer and Minister for Energy, Treasury, Minister for Environment and Heritage or the Department of Planning and Environment relating to contamination at power station associated sites:

(a) all documents, including correspondence, relating to contamination at sites associated with operations at the following power stations, for which the State may be liable at any time in accordance with the terms of its sale of those power stations:

(i) Mount Piper power station;

(ii) Bayswater power station;

(iii) Liddell power station;

(iv) Vales Point power station;

(v) Eraring power station;

(vi) Munmorah power station;

(vii) Redbank power station; and

(viii) Wallerawang power station.

(b) any legal or other advice regarding the scope or validity of this order of the House created as a result of this order of the House.

Back in 2019 one of the first Standing Order 52 motions in this House related to the contamination at sites associated with power stations across New South Wales. The documents that we got back from that call for papers were incredibly informative, to the extent that it resulted in not just me but quite a number of people mentioning the words "coal ash" continuously in every budget estimates hearing from then on, until the most recent budget estimates hearings. But it also revealed the extent of the State's continuing liability for these power station sites following privatisation and the extent to which there is significant contamination at these sites, for which the State will remain liable.

As we are transitioning away from reliance on coal‑fired power, these power stations are closing down. And, as we have seen with some of the older power station sites, there is a real risk that the power station operators will walk away, leaving the sites effectively un‑remediated. We hear talk of, for example, covering up toxic coal ash dams, which I remind members are, effectively, toxic chemicals sitting in unlined pits next to major waterways and seeping into groundwater. There is a real risk that we do the same thing that we did decades ago: just cover them up and seek to build on top of them without remediating, without moving the coal ash and without taking the opportunity to reuse and recycle it. The worst possible thing one can do, as we now know all of these decades later, is to build upon coal ash sites and old power stations that have not been remediated.

In light of the announced closures by AGL and Origin, and in light of the unanswered questions we still have around the Eraring Power Station's ash dam wall—apparently there was a risk that it could break and that toxic sludge would come down into the Myuna Bay Sport and Recreation Centre—we still have no answers as to what is going on with that site and with the remediation. To be honest, we have no faith that the Government, in accordance with the current lax standards that have been laxly enforced so far, will take the right steps to remediate those sites.

In that light, The Greens propose the exact same Standing Order 52 motion that we successfully moved in 2019. We have ensured that this call for papers does not capture the same documents that were produced then. We are only looking for new documents because we really want to know. I note we uncovered a number of documents in the original SO 52 motion, which we were not able to release from privilege. That gave us serious concerns. This time, in light of the site closures, we hope to see more transparency on the task of remediating those sites. Out of a spirit of goodwill, we have agreed to amend the 21 days to 35 days, understanding the pressures on our public servants. In that light, I ask all members to support the call for papers.

 

The Hon. PETER POULOS (22:10): The Government does not support the order for papers. It is the fifth onerous Standing Order 52 request on electricity asset sales since 2019. Further, this House recently conducted an inquiry into the costs for the remediation of coal ash repositories in New South Wales, which covered the issues raised in the motion. The Government has already fully disclosed all pre-existing contamination associated with the sale of power stations for which it may be liable. Treasury has provided details of the contamination within the baseline studies published on the NSW Treasury website as of 5 November 2021. In its current form, the standing order will largely reproduce material that has already been disclosed.

As previously addressed in recent budget estimates hearings, the State's liability for pre-existing contamination is disclosed in the State's finances as a contingent liability in accordance with the usual accounting practices. Even if the documents requested are returned, the liabilities will still remain contingent, except where a liability for pre-existing contamination has materialised because the Environment Protection Authority has ordered remediation and the indemnity is otherwise triggered. If the indemnity is not triggered, then the liabilities remain contingent. Where the indemnities are triggered, then the State will make a financial provision for that liability, which will be disclosed in the State's financial records. The potential liabilities are reported as an aggregated number due to their commercially sensitive nature. The order for documents will not produce any greater financial transparency than the current arrangements. Therefore, I encourage members to vote against the motion.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (22:13): On behalf of Labor, I speak in support of the call for papers. To deal with an issue raised by the Hon. Peter Poulos and his suggestion that previously provided documents will be provided again, that is simply not true. The dates contained in the Standing Order 52 motion are after the date of the last call for papers. The motion clearly seeks new papers, not to rehash any old papers. All of us who spend time in the Mookhey wing do not wish to read papers that we have previously read before. Labor supports the motion.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (The Hon. Wes Fang): The question is that the motion be agreed to.

Motion agreed to.

 

the full transcript can be found in Hansard, here.

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