At least 60 million tons of coal ash needs to be removed

The huge ash dam at Vales Point Power Station at Mannering Park

Dr Heinz-Joachim Muller, a member of the Community Environment Network executive committee, was one of six speakers at the second public hearing at the Inquiry into Coal-ash Waste Remediation.

The Inquiry was established in October 2019, for the NSW Public Works Committee to investigate and report on the costs of remediation of coal ash repositories in NSW, including power stations at Vales Point and Eraring.

This second hearing was held at Lake Macquarie on Tuesday, October 6.

Dr Muller was representing CEN, a network of community and environment groups on the Central Coast and Lake Macquarie, with a membership of 400, including 70 groups which, in turn, have a membership of about 5,000.

He told the Inquiry that all sites stored coal ash in a manner which is inferior to best practice and must be brought to a safe standard as soon as possible, even before the closure of the power plants.

“There is a huge amount of work involved in remediating the existing sites and it will be a costly activity,” he said.

“At Lake Macquarie, there’s an estimated 60 million tons of coal ash to be removed from unlined dams near open water bodies and close to populated areas.

“The skills required for this task are actually quite similar to the skills required for open cut mining.

“This will keep many miners employed for many years to come, even if the mines and coal-fired power stations have been shut down.

“Once remediated, the land used for coal ash dams and everything else related to power stations, will provide large areas of valuable land for revegetation, settlements and leisure.

“Our existing regime for dealing with coal ash is far below the state of the art and best practice.

“The current regulatory regime is not up to standard.

“There is a serious conflict of interest, with the state of NSW being on the one hand either the owner or the former owner and being liable for remediation, and on the other hand, setting and enforcing the rules for safe and proper remediations according to best practice.”

Dr Muller told the Inquiry that we need to look at what other countries have been doing.

“Many European countries have no ash dams at all, although they are still using coal,” he said.

“Coal ash is either recycled into concrete or other building materials or in other applications where it can be used safely.

“In the US, wet storage in coal ash dams is to be abandoned and all wet stored coal ash has to be moved into dry storage with waterproof lining and with a watertight capping.

“Existing ash dams have no watertight lining nor is there a watertight capping material.

“Ash dams, for instance at Vales Point power station, are capped with soil and rock from other building sites, like the NorthConnex tunnel.

“This is not watertight capping material and as the rainwater percolates through, leachates will end up contaminating ground water and/or Lake Macquarie and other nearby water bodies.

Spokesman for Hunter Central Coast Coal-Ash Community Alliance, Gary Blaschke OAM, addressed the first hearing in September at NSW Parliament House, and also voiced concerns over the local impacts of the unlined coal ash dump sites at Vales Point and Eraring Power Station, found to be contaminating waterways and groundwater.

“The community needs to remember that it was Eraring ash dam wall instability which instigated the closure of the Myuna Bay Sport and Recreation Centre over 12 months ago,” he said.

Dr Muller also attended the site visit of the commission in 2019 investigating the coal ash dam of the Eraring Power Station.

Calls have been issued by numerous local groups for an increase in the safe reuse of coal ash waste, to reduce heavy metals leaching from the dumps and into water from the estimated 60 million tonnes of accumulated waste on Lake Macquarie’s shores.

“We love our beautiful lake and have deeply held concerns about the impact of ash dumps on Lake Macquarie and the hidden toxic legacy in our water and our air that requires urgent attention,” said Alliance spokesperson, Bruce Derkenne.

“We hope the inquiry brings opportunities in safe coal ash reuse and sound environmental rehabilitation outcomes for our lake and our region,” he said.

Findings from the Inquiry are expected to be reported by July, 2021.

Sue Murray

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