Report reveals coal ash pond concerns

Michelle Slater

Latrobe Valley coal ash ponds have been described as “ticking time-bombs” which are poorly regulated, in a report released today by Environmental Justice Australia.

The report Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacy provides seven recommendations for regulators and power station operators to strictly manage clean-up plans.

The report findings will also be discussed at a public forum in Morwell later this month.

Some of the recommendations include national best practice management guidelines, with plans to clean up groundwater contamination, as well as more transparency around their management.

EJA lawyer Bronya Lipski said there needed to be a requirement in licences to develop rehabilitation plans well before the closure of power stations.

“There is nowhere in Australia where power stations need to prepare a rehabilitation strategy for dump sites,” Ms Lipski said.

Ms Lipski said the standard practice in the Latrobe Valley was to mix coal ash with waste water and pump it into worked-out sections of adjacent brown coal mines or on top of overburden piles.

She said this practice could lead to groundwater contamination containing toxic heavy metals that can harm communities living in close proximity to the ash ponds.

Ms Lipski alleged the ash ponds at Loy Yang and Yallourn were plagued with groundwater contamination, and the Environmental Protection Authority had no regulatory requirement to clean it up unless it strayed outside the licence boundaries.

“Coal ash is an enormous toxic legacy issue for Australia that largely flies under the radar despite it being one of Australia’s biggest waste problems and a huge risk to human and environmental health,” Ms Lipski said.

“Lax government regulation and poor management of coal ash dumps has led to the contamination of groundwater, rivers, lakes and aquatic ecosystems as well as toxic air pollution from dried out dumps.”

Ms Lipski said Victoria was the only state that required mine operators to pay a financial bond for ash ponds, and management differed in each state and from power station to power station.

EPA chief environmental scientist Dr Andrea Hinwood said Victorian power station licences had stringent requirements regarding dust, which included wind-blown ash.

She said Victorian ash ponds were of a much smaller scale in other states.

“Stockpiled ash at active or inactive sites must be managed to limit dust generation. An example of how industry can do this is by keeping the ash wet until it is permanently covered as part of a site’s closure and rehabilitation,” she said.

“EPA requires stringent groundwater management and monitoring and auditing of ash landfills through its licences.”

Both AGL Loy Yang and EnergyAustralia spokespeople said they hold EPA licences which covers ash pond management.

AGL Loy Yang general manager Nigel Browne said it includes a groundwater attenuation zone in the vicinity of the ash pond, ensuring that all activities outside this zone do not pollute groundwater.

He said there was also clear regulatory oversight for decommissioning and remediation of Loy Yang A and the mine, including its ash ponds.

“Our ongoing groundwater monitoring program assesses our compliance against our obligations under our licence,” Mr Browne said.

“AGL Loy Yang is in compliance with regulations and our current licensing conditions as they relate to groundwater in the vicinity of the ash pond.”

An EnergyAustralia spokesman said the Yallourn ash ponds were monitored and routinely independently assessed by an EPA-approved auditor.

“We take great care to ensure our operations are within licence limits and that any impacts from our operations are socially and environmentally acceptable,” he said.

“Our ash settlement basin liners are also monitored to ensure their integrity is maintained. Groundwater bores are set around its boundary and they are sampled and tested regularly.”

The EJA community coal ash forum will be held at the Gippsland Multicultural Services office in Buckley Street, Morwell on Tuesday, July 16 from 6:30-8:30pm.