Why hasn't the Government acted to clean up coal ash?

Abigail called out the Coalition Government on their lack of action on cleaning up coal ash after every possible piece of evidence crying out for action.

Abigail said:

In 2019, on the back of the amazing work done by the likes of the Hunter Community Environment Centre and Environmental Justice Australia, I initiated the inquiry into the costs for remediation of coal ash repositories in New South Wales. At that time we were focused on who had responsibility or residual liability for the coal ash sites following the privatisation of the State's power generation assets, as well as what the cost is likely to be to remediate those sites to meet best practice standards and whether there were opportunities for recycling and re-using coal ash to a greater degree. It is fair to say that many of my colleagues on the committee were not particularly invigorated by the terms of the inquiry when we commenced. However, I noticed a perceptible shift in attitudes after the morning of the first day of hearings, when committee members were shown photos of enormous coal ash dams and a technical explanation of the issues involved in their remediation was detailed by the Hunter Community and Environment Centre.

Over three days of hearings—one at Lake Macquarie—we heard from a great many well‑informed and passionate people about the dangers to the environment and the community that result from leaving toxic coal ash to fester in unlined pits and leach into groundwater or wash or blow away onto nearby land and into bodies of water. We heard from the incredible Gary Blashke, who spoke of his work in gathering data about the clusters of health problems in communities around coal ash dams in New South Wales. He is still continuing that work to this day. Some of the clusters of illnesses he has found are quite shocking, particularly around Lake Macquarie regarding children with brain and spinal cancers. Although we do not have a causal link yet, those cancers are very suspicious and warrant much more attention and investigation from the Government.

The committee recommended that the Government work to establish the health impacts of coal ash and to look at the impact on air and water quality around coal ash dams by the end of this year. The committee also recommended that the Government undertake a comprehensive and independent assessment of the environmental impacts of coal ash dams. In the course of the inquiry, the decision to close Myuna Bay Sport and Recreation Centre was explored and it was found that the decision to close that centre was made with no transparency and that communication with stakeholders and the local community was inadequate. Concerns remain about that site and about the risk that the Eraring ash dam wall may breach. Those risks do not go away just because Eraring is now scheduled for closure. In fact, it causes even greater concerns because, as we heard very clearly during the inquiry, there are real dangers in building on top of coal ash dams.

Toxic coal ash is sitting in unlined pits. If the pits get built over without first being remediated and the coal ash treated or the dams lined, that will contribute to pushing the toxic chemicals further down into the groundwater. We have a lot of evidence from the United States about how that turns out. There is real concern that as coal-fired power stations close, coal ash sites will not be remediated to the extent they should be. Given the findings of the committee that the resulting impact on the health and environment of the surrounding communities is potentially so severe, we need to be more vigilant than ever to make sure that best practice is followed when it comes to remediating coal ash sites.

In relation to the potential opportunities involved with coal ash recycling, the committee found that coal ash is a valuable resource and that there is widespread support across the spectrum of stakeholders for the greater re‑use of coal ash as it will lead to industry development and job creation, particularly in the creation of lightweight aggregate products, tiles and other types of construction products, and a reduction in environmental harm as the toxic ash is taken out and treated instead of being left in the ground, while contributing to developing a circular economy. Although the Government gave a nod to that in its waste strategy, that is all it did, unfortunately. We have a golden opportunity to create new industries on the sites of coal-fired power stations that are closing and create more jobs.

To that end, the committee recommended that the Government establish a coal ash re-use task force comprised of State government agencies, unions, industry stakeholders and community groups to lead development of a strategy to achieve at least 80 per cent re‑use of coal ash produced in New South Wales and to report by 2022. We also recommended that the new task force investigate regulations affecting the remediation of coal ash repositories and the re‑use of coal ash. A number of other recommendations were made that were designed to increase the demand for coal ash in transport projects and to encourage the re‑use of coal ash in lightweight aggregates for use in construction.

Despite the delays the inquiry experienced due to COVID, the members of the committee were unchanged throughout the inquiry, which I find is quite rare these days as we tend to have a lot of changes in membership. I sincerely thank my fellow committee members for opening their hearts and minds to this issue, taking the time to understand and engage with it and, I hope, becoming a little bit as enthusiastic as I am in seeing the problem cleaned up. The members of the committee were the Hon. Daniel Mookhey, the Hon. Mark Banasiak, the Hon. Sam Farraway, the Hon. Trevor Khan, the Hon. Shayne Mallard and the Hon. Tara Moriarty.

Given the cross-party support for the recommendations in this report, the Government's response is pretty disappointing. Notably, the suggestion to work with industry and the community to create a task force to accelerate the development of the coal ash re‑use industry was merely noted by the Government. We have a need to rapidly diversify employment opportunities in communities traditionally reliant on coalmining and coal-fired power stations, with the opportunity to establish new sustainable industries on site and the potential to achieve a true job‑for‑job transition, and the Government looks the other way. If industry cannot even convince the Government,, I do not know what can, but words and no action from the Government is par for the course. Despite the Government's lukewarm response, I note the report is hugely helpful in the campaign to have coal ash repositories cleaned up and in ensuring that companies who profited the most from coal-fired power will contribute the most to their clean-up. I thank all those who took the time to contribute to the inquiry and the fabulous team of the committee secretariat and Hansard.

See the full transcript in Hansard here.

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