Coal ash dams

14th October 2020

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (20:19:57): Throughout New South Wales right now about 200 million tonnes of coal ash is being stored in unlined dams. It is by far the biggest waste product generated in Australia and is growing by 3.8 million tonnes a year. Lake Macquarie houses the State's biggest coal-fired power station at Eraring, which produces about 25 per cent of the State's power needs and more than a million tonnes of coal ash each year. I note that the member for Swansea is in the Chamber tonight, too. In her electorate she has Vales Point and legacy ash also from the former Munmorah Power Station. At Eraring, the adjoining coal ash dam currently holds about 35 million tonnes of toxic ash and the operator recently won approval to expand it.

There is no question that coal ash is an enormous problem that has largely been ignored for decades, despite evidence that it is doing significant damage to human health and the environment. It would be very easy to point fingers at the current private operators of these power stations, but that would not be entirely fair. Origin Energy now owns Eraring, but only since 2013. For the 30 years prior it was owned and operated by the State Government. We have seen numerous State governments of all political stripes come and go during that time, but none have properly addressed the issue.

Only last week I appeared before the upper House inquiry into the cost of remediating these coal ash dams. The inquiry is being ably run by the Hon. Daniel Mookhey, and I very much appreciated the invitation to address it. The inquiry has received about 100 detailed submissions, mostly from community, health and environment groups, but also from the power generators and industry bodies. While we should allow that inquiry to form its own conclusions, we know that this is a serious problem and that coal ash should be treated as a reusable resource and not a waste product. That brings me to my main and very important point: Coal ash should be valued for its possible beneficial uses yet we allow it to stockpile in mindboggling amounts, adding to the environmental burden.

The Government ignored the coal ash legacy when it sold these power stations, meaning there is currently no plan to remediate these ash dams, no requirements on current owners to recycle the waste and no meaningful strategy to deal with them in the long term. As it stands, we will be leaving a 200 million tonne toxic legacy for future generations to deal with. That cannot be allowed to happen. Coal ash is already used in the manufacture of cement and cement products. It can also be used in things such as bitumen and road construction. Currently about 35 per cent of the coal ash Eraring generated is recycled. We need that to be 102 per cent, 105 per cent,110 per cent or something in that order so we can start to reduce the 200 million tonnes we have stored in dams.

There are markets wanting to buy this resource. Some years ago Origin tested the reuse of coal ash in construction of its private haul road. The results have been excellent. Despite the high volume of coal trucks moving over it the road has reportedly stood up better than similar roads using more traditional construction materials. Yet State agencies such as Roads and Maritime Services or Transport for NSW do not seem to want to engage with the power generators to discuss ways in which the State could use this coal ash in road construction around the State.

I have had more than half a dozen large companies approach me about getting access to the coal ash stored at Eraring and Vales Point so they can put it to a new and viable use, but they are left frustrated by the lack of interest from Government and, in some cases, from the power companies themselves. To his credit, environment Minister Matt Kean has shown interest in the matter and I know he is committed to finding a solution. I have also had discussions with the State and regional roads Ministers and they too are showing interest—I certainly thank him for that. I note that the upper House inquiry is due to report its findings next March, but I remain hopeful that the Government will continue to move on this issue sooner than that.

We must know what the long-term impacts of this legacy will be. We must have the Government play a leading role in cleaning up the mess that has been mostly created by its predecessors. We must require the coal-find power generators to meet new benchmarks for coal ash recycling. We must get government agencies, such as Transport for NSW, engaged in ways that enables them to repurpose this coal ash in reconstruction. We must look at bond schemes or sinking funds so that we are not leaving local communities and future generations to manage the problem. Simply, we must act now because that toxic legacy grew by a third—10,000 tonnes yesterday and 10,000 tonnes today.

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