We Must Clean Up Toxic Coal Ash Dams NOW

Abigail spoke on the pressing matter of the toxic coal ash dams sitting in the backyard of thousands of people across our state, and the Government's continued failure to take action.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD(19:50): I move:

(1) That this House notes that the following motion was carried by the Central Coast Council on 13 April 2021:

That the Central Coast Council:

(a) supports the 16 recommendations made in the report Costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories, by the Public Works Committee;

(b) writes to the local members of Parliament and to the Minister for Energy and Environment to seek their support for the New South Wales Government to acknowledge the inquiry and commence the implementation of the recommendations; and

(c) acknowledges the hard work of Lake Munmorah resident Mr Gary Blashke, OAM, in raising community awareness about this important issue and for appearing before the Legislative Council inquiry personally.

(2) That this House commends the Central Coast Council motion concerning coal ash remediation to the Hon. Matt Kean, MP, Treasurer, and Minister for Energy and Environment.

(3) That this House notes with disappointment the Government's response to the Public Works Committee's report and calls on the Government to take meaningful steps to manage the health and environmental risks relating to New South Wales' coal ash repositories.

The people of the Central Coast and Lake Macquarie have been living in the toxic shadow of the Vales Point and Eraring power stations for decades. They have long known that the lake is being polluted and that each year the pollution gets worse. Dozens of types of concentrated heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, vanadium, chromium as well as radioactive uranium and radon continue to ooze from the unlined repositories of the power station coal ash dams into the lake and down into the groundwater. Attached to fine particles of ash, they drift through the air, blowing onto skin and into nostrils—and that is before we even get to the 30 different toxic chemicals that billow from poorly regulated stacks to spread their noxious effects up to 200 kilometres away. These airborne toxins are then ingested by local and distant residents, increasing their risk of respiratory diseases, strokes and premature death.

Eraring is our most urban power station. The station shares Lake Macquarie with families, as they swim, boat and fish. Fishing on Lake Macquarie has declined in recent years, as concerns have grown over the noxious substances being found in the marine life. Dangerously high levels of mercury and selenium in fish and cadmium in crabs have resulted in dietary limits being put in place to minimise people's exposure. Yet despite the growing mountain of evidence and despite the very real consequences for people's health and the cost to the community of failing to act, the regulation of these coal ash dams has been poor.

When these coal stations were built, there was no requirement to line the pits and, like many other power stations closed long ago in the Sydney area, power station operators have not been required to ensure proper remediation of the pits. They are just capped and left to do their damage, with much of the worst contamination occurring decades after they have been covered up and forgotten. It is perhaps forgivable that past governments—not knowing what we know now—failed to put in place regulations to prevent the impact of these coal ash dams on our health and the environment. But what is unforgivable is that armed with the full knowledge of the level of contamination and the degree of harm caused, this Government has not chosen to do things differently.

In the United States it took a disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, to get the authorities to take the issue seriously. In Kingston a coal ash pond ruptured. The contents of the pond, the ash, the toxic by-product of coal combustion, smothered nearby houses and turned kilometres of the nearby river into what was described as a "lumpy grey chowder". The coal ash—touted as benign by the coal companies—took 10 years to clean up. It took the lives of 36 workers who were involved in the clean-up. They died from brain cancer, leukaemia and other diseases connected with the toxins in the coal ash. Hundreds of clean‑up survivors were left permanently injured or disabled, nearly all with respiratory illness and many with blisters and burning sores from the chemicals still buried in their skin more than 10 years later. This was the biggest industrial spill in US history and it opened the public's eyes to the fact that coal ash is, in fact, not safe. It is not benign and it needs to be treated like the hazardous substance that it is.

There are hundreds of millions of tons of coal ash in New South Wales, largely hidden from view of a public unaware of the dangers. Following a concerted campaign from locals and at my initiative, the Public Works Committee led an inquiry into coal ash depositories in New South Wales. Regardless of political party membership, eyes were opened, not just to the health and environmental problems but also to the solutions to those problems—solutions that are not only feasible but will actually create new jobs in industries focused on re‑using the coal ash. It was during the inquiry that the committee heard from Mr Gary Blashke, who has been a vital part of the campaign for better regulation of coal ash dams and has fought for years to get the Government to listen and acknowledge, in particular, the health impact of coal-fired power stations on nearby residents like himself, including his own recent cancer diagnosis.

The Central Coast Council passed a motion on 13 April supporting all of the 16 recommendations made in the Public Works Committee report and acknowledged the hard work of Mr Gary Blashke. Since then, the Government has handed down its disappointing response to the report. The response showed a government unwilling to implement best practice outcomes for communities who live near coal ash dams. It failed to adopt any of the recommendations that would see meaningful steps taken to not only start rectifying the health and environmental impacts but also to provide jobs in a new coal ash re-use industry as part of that clean-up process.

Will it take a disaster like that at Kingston—a breach of the Eraring dam perhaps, spilling over Myuna Bay—before we take this issue seriously? The damage has been done and continues to be done. It cannot be covered up and left for another day. Long after the power station operators have packed up their bags, pocketed their profits and moved on to other things, the clean-up costs will fall on the Government. If the Government took its responsibilities seriously, it would be planning now to make the closure and clean-up process as effective as possible. I commend the motion to the House.

 

The full debate including the LNP Government's disappointing response can be found on Hansard, here.

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