Coal ash response a ‘kick in the guts’ for community

The coal ash dam at Vales Point Power Station

The NSW Government’s “lacklustre” response to recommendations from an Inquiry into power station coal-ash site remediation has drawn criticism from environmental groups for the wasted opportunity to tackle “one of the biggest contamination liabilities facing NSW”.

The NSW Public Works Committee launched the Inquiry into coal ash dams in February 2020, following long-term campaigning by Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) and local groups, the Lake Macquarie Central Coast Coal Ash Community Alliance and the Hunter Community Environment Centre.

Ash dams under the microscope were the two power stations on Lake Macquarie at Vales Point and Eraring, as well as Bayswater and Liddell in the Upper Hunter and Mount Piper near Lithgow.

The Committee’s 16 recommendations released in March were criticised for not going far enough to address the enormous risks and costs associated with poor coal-ash dam management and rehabilitation.

Last month, EJA lawyers authored a paper to provide a blueprint for best practice implementation of four key recommendations from the Inquiry.

EJA lawyer, Bronya Lipski, said the NSW Government’s response did not reflect the best practice approach outlined in the report, supported by the Coal Ash Community Alliance and Hunter Environment Centre.

“It appears that the NSW Government is still kicking the can down the road rather than implementing best-practice outcomes for communities who live near coal ash dams,” she said.

“How much longer does the NSW Government, and the Environment Protection Authority, intend to delay genuine development and implementation of rigorous rehabilitation planning and coal ash reuse strategies?

“It’s a kick in the guts to stakeholders in the community who want to see a robust coal-ash reuse industry developed to achieve the two-fold benefit of protecting the environment and creating jobs.

“The government failure to support the creation of a coal ash reuse taskforce for example, which would include the community, is a blow to public participation.

“The community has been left behind … best practice requires genuine community engagement and participation.

“The elephant in the room here is that the coal ash Inquiry was unable to uncover the costs associated with the remediation of coal ash dams, and the NSW Government hasn’t addressed it either.

“The final kick in the guts is for the public interest in how much the taxpayers will be charged for clean-up,” Lipski said.

Researcher at the Hunter Community Environment Centre, Paul Winn, said the Government’s response to the Inquiry was “a wasted opportunity to take leading action to address one of the biggest contamination liabilities facing NSW”.

“It failed to implement or even endorse the majority of the meaningful actions the Inquiry presented them with to reduce contamination arising from coal-ash waste dumps,” he said.

“The EPA investigation into the full extent of coal-ash impacts is welcome, but the issue of site decontamination and the Government’s liability has not been addressed.

“The Inquiry terms of reference, including economic and employment opportunities associated with coal-ash reuse, site remediation and repurposing of land, is the perfect opportunity for the government to support regional economies set to face job losses when coal power stations close,” Winn said.

Sue Murray