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Australia NSW coal ash dams need better regulation, say environment groups

04:45  18 october  2020
04:45  18 october  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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There are calls for the New South Wales Government to better regulate and monitor coal ash dams , with a new report by an environmental group The ash produced from burning coal at power stations constitutes 18 per cent of all waste produced in Australia, and in NSW there is 200 million

Environment compliance report: Coal ash dams and emplacements. The Environment Protection Authority, the NSW Department of Planning and Environment and the NSW Department of Planning and Environment – Resources Regulator has prepared this publication in good faith exercising all

a close up of a rock: A coal ash dam in NSW. (Supplied: Hunter Community Environment Centre) © Provided by ABC Business A coal ash dam in NSW. (Supplied: Hunter Community Environment Centre)

There are calls for the New South Wales Government to better regulate and monitor coal ash dams, with a new report by an environmental group claiming they are contaminating waterways with heavy metals.

The ash produced from burning coal at power stations constitutes 18 per cent of all waste produced in Australia, and in NSW there is 200 million tonnes of it sitting in unlined waste dams.

The state's ash waste problem is growing by 3.8 million tonnes each year, which amounts to 7 tonnes of ash waste dumped every minute.

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A new rule that relaxes restrictions on ash pollution is the latest effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to sustain coal power in the face of crushing competition from renewables. And like the others, it’s sure to prove ineffective, wasteful and hugely damaging to the environment .

Coal ash refers to what’s left after coal is burned. Those remnants pose environmental and health risks, especially when storage ponds are breached. The industry thought the rules were too stringent and environmental groups thought they did not go far enough. After President Trump took office, the

The Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC) spent two years collecting water and sediment samples around the state's ash dams for its report.

"The drainage from each of the power station ash dams in NSW revealed quite significant exceedances of Australian water quality guidelines for a number of heavy metals," HCEC researcher Paul Winn said.

"And this was consistent in all the ash dams that we sampled, and all the sediment and water that we analysed had high concentrations of heavy metals."

Some of the metals include selenium, cadmium, boron, nickel, copper and zinc.

The new report, Out of the Ashes 2, will be launched on Monday.

It compiles and compares sampling from each NSW power station, data from the power station’s own pollution monitoring and information the government’s own environmental assessments in 2014.

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Environmental Justice Australia says the most poorly constructed ash dams should be moved and the existing sites cleaned up. Wynn, now the secretary of community group Myuna Bay Sports and Recreation Centre, says some people were alarmed when the environment centre published NSW

Waste ash from hundreds of coal -fired power plants has contaminated groundwater in 39 states with toxic substances like arsenic, lithium and mercury, according to a report by two environmental groups that was based on data the plants reported to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr Winn said HCEC wanted to provide a comprehensive snapshot of the pollution problem to force the NSW government to improve ash recycling rates and monitoring of ash dams.

"We believe a lot of the monitoring at these sites is still pretty ad hoc," Mr Winn said.

"There's a number of sites … [where] we're finding heavy metal contamination that's flowing into lakes and river ways that aren't being monitored.

"And we believe a much more extensive monitoring regime needs to be imposed on these power station operators."

Questionable science

Delta Electricity, which owns Vales Point power station at Lake Macquarie, said the environment centre was prone to "sensationalist claims aimed at creating community concerns".

"HCEC tends to compare sample results from discharge waters to ANZECC [Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council] guidelines, which is misleading," it said in a statement.

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EPA regulation of coal combustion residues would supersede existing state regulatory authority, impose overly stringent federal regulations and threaten a growing The states that have coal fired utilities have been regulating and managing coal ash for years without the need for a federal program.

Critics of the new coal ash rules say they are a gift to industry and a continued burden for those Historically, when coal was burned, plants would send the ash out of smokestacks, creating dark The folks at the state regulatory agencies have a much better feel for the issues at hand," Roewer said .

"ANZECC guidelines are designed to be applied to the water quality of the receiving body (in this case Lake Macquarie) and not the individual discharges into it."

Origin Energy, which owns Eraring power station at Lake Macquarie, said its environmental monitoring exceeds regulatory requirements showed regular compliance with the power station's EPA licence conditions.

AGL, which owns Bayswater and Liddell in the Hunter Valley said it worked closely with the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to comply with its licence conditions.

Major environmental problem

But Western Sydney University water scientist Ian Wright reviewed the HCEC report and said it shone a light on what was a largely hidden and unstudied problem.

"I think this is a really important expose of a major problem, a major environmental problem that is literally growing all the time," Dr Wright said.

"I was kind of expecting the sort of levels for things like boron and fluoride and zinc and nickel, but this is the first study of its kind where I've seen samples and information from multiple reports, that quantifies and compares.

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"And honestly, I'm surprised and alarmed."

Dr Wright said the unlined ash dams often had direct connections to groundwater and sometimes surface water.

The remediation plan for most ash dams is to cover them with a compacted clay capping, but Dr Wright said heavy metals would continue to leach out of the unlined dams over many decades.

"It's dumped in a slurry, so the coal ash is actually mixed with water and this is what you want to do if you want to accelerate and mobilise the pollution out of the coal ash," he said.

"I think this is Dark Ages, Dickensian management of pollution and we need a quantum leap in the management of this.

"This is harming the ecosystem, water quality and fish for human health. So what more incentive do we have?"

A NSW parliamentary inquiry is investigating the State Government's potential liability, as the former owners, for the coal ash dams.

On Friday, the inquiry heard from the NSW Environment Protection Authority which acknowledged the work of HCEC and revealed its own investigation plans.

"We've had the HCDC report and been reviewing that and that would inform future work that we intend to undertake," EPA Executive Director David Fowler said.

"We'll be looking at ... a comprehensive study of surface water and ground water and their potential impact on the surrounding environment."

Call for a $20 levy

Environmental groups are pushing for the State Government to implement a $20 levy on power stations for every tonne of coal ash waste dumped.

They say it will inspire power stations to increase the recycling of coal ash into concrete, where it can in some instances supplement sand or aggregate.

There is also a push for the Government to adjust its procurement policies, to mandate an increase in the use of coal ash in government building and roads projects.

"We want the Government to get serious about ash reuse, to get rid of the over 200 million tonnes of ash that's been deposited in ash dumps around NSW," Mr Winn said.

"That's going to take a long time, but we think with a procurement policy by government, hopefully, one day, some of this pollution will be addressed."

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