COAL ash with elevated heavy metal levels could have left AGL’s Bayswater and Liddell power station sites since 2015, breaching environmental orders and ramping up calls for much greater scrutiny of coal ash sites across NSW.
AGL said it was not in a position to confirm how long it had been non-compliant since it bought the power stations from the NSW Government in 2014, after questions by the Newcastle Herald following a statement by the company on Thursday announcing the suspension of coal ash sales.
“We are aware from testing that some of the coal ash from our Bayswater and Liddell power stations show elevated levels of heavy metals including chromium, cadmium and copper, exceeding limits set by the Environment Protection Authority,” said AGL’s executive general manager of group operations, Doug Jackson.
He acknowledged “failures in our own practices” and said a thorough review was underway to determine how long the exceedances had occurred, despite a requirement to provide proof of coal ash testing for compliance to suppliers.
AGL notified the EPA, SafeWork NSW, NSW Health and all businesses that had purchased the ash to use in products including concrete. It received assurances the businesses would not distribute the coal ash further, and had engaged independent experts to undertake further testing of its sites. Coal ash is a fine-particle combustion product from coal-fired power stations driven out of the boiler with flue gases.
We are aware from testing that some of the coal ash from our Bayswater and Liddell power stations show elevated levels of heavy metals including chromium, cadmium and copper, exceeding limits set by the Environment Protection Authority.AGL's Doug Jackson.
Mr Jackson said expert advice was that levels detected did not pose a risk to public or worker health and it was unlikely to pose an unacceptable environmental risk because of coal ash’s uses.
Environmental Justice Australia, which has campaigned strongly on the need for much greater scrutiny and regulation of coal ash sites across Australia, after companies represented the material as benign or inert, said generators are required to provide suppliers with copies of tests showing heavy metal level compliance.
“It would appear that if these contaminant levels are higher than what is permitted by the EPA for reuse, the issue hasn’t been picked up by anyone,” the EJA’s Bronya Lipski said.
The EJA’s Dr James Whelan said AGL “should be commended for going out on the front foot and acknowledging the problem, but where’s the EPA on this?”
The EJA strongly criticised the EPA earlier this month after the environmental watchdog issued Vales Point power station operator Delta Electricity with an order to clean up suspected asbestos waste at its coal ash dam but failed to notify nearby residents.
Dr Whelan said the EJA had alerted NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton to coal ash as “one of those environmental problems that just hasn’t been addressed.
“We’ve been asking for two to three years, ‘How about the toxic legacy of these extremely large coal ash sites after the power stations have closed and the operators have gone away?”’ Dr Whelan said.
“We’ve asked the minister to consider bonds for remediation of these sites, in the same way that mining companies are required to pay bonds to the government for the rehabilitation of mine sites.
“As far as we know there is no agreed remediation code of practice, despite a risk of decades of toxic damage if these sites are not carefully monitored and managed.”
Nature Conservation Council senior climate and energy campaigner Brad Smith said AGL’s admission it had been selling contaminated waste to business customers highlighted the need to tighten environmental controls on the state’s most polluting industry.
“The tsunami of waste generated by coal-fired power stations is leaving an immense toxic legacy for future generations to deal with, especially in the Hunter Valley and on the Central Coast,” Mr Smith said.
“About 5.8 million tonnes of toxic coal ash are produced by coal-fired power stations every year in Australia, which is 22 per cent of all the nation’s waste.”
In 2018 Origin Energy announced plans to dump five million cubic metres of coal ash close to Lake Macquarie, despite reports Eraring power station was leaching toxins into the lake.
“AGL says the products do not pose a public health risk, but the company had also led us to believe until today that the ash it was selling met government standards,” Mr Smith said.
An EPA spokesperson said the watchdog was treating it as a serious matter and had launched a full investigation.
“AGL will be required to provide its coal ash testing records as well as their records that indicate where and how much coal ash has been distributed off site,” the spokesperson said.
“The Coal Ash Order, 2014 sets strict criteria for heavy metals in coal ash intended for beneficial uses. It also sets out requirements for sampling and reporting.”