Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacy

How the regulation of toxic coal ash waste is failing Australian communities
Energy industries Coal-fired power Power resources Environmental health Conservation Public health Australia

Coal ash cannot be disposed of safely. Even with best practice methods, there remains a significant contamination risk to the environment and communities. Coal ash dumps must be carefully and strictly managed and rehabilitated to minimise the risk posed to human and environmental health.

Regulation is wholly inadequate. Reporting information is not available to community scrutiny without resorting to Freedom of Information. Regulators don’t require operators to maintain a bond or financial assurance for toxic coal ash dumps nor to prepare best-practice rehabilitation and closure plans, and have not planned for future monitoring and maintenance of ash dumps into the future.

In Australia, wet disposal is the primary means of coal ash disposal because it is the cheapest form of dumping. The less contaminating way of dumping ash is to keep it dry and firmly contained offsite. This practice is used by very few coal-fired power stations in the country. Elsewhere, wet toxic sludge full of heavy metals and poisonous materials is left to sit in unlined pits and leak into groundwater tables.

As this report shows, coal ash dumps are already causing water contamination, polluting aquatic ecosystems, and blowing toxic ash over communities who live near them. Cleaning up existing contamination is critical to protecting water sources, preventing air pollution, and planning future land use. Governments must make these coal-fired power stations clean up their act. Exceptionally poorly constructed ash ponds in Australia, including Eraring, Vales Point, and Loy Yang, should be re-sited, reconstructed and managed to allow for thorough clean-up of existing contamination.

By implementing the recommendations in this report, governments can reduce the toxic health and environmental impacts of coal-fired power stations until we transition away from polluting energy to clean energy powered by sun, wind and waves.

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