LAKE Macquarie MP Greg Piper has backed calls for an independent peer review of a damning report into heavy metals entering the Lake Macquarie system from two ageing coal-fired power stations.
"Of course it should be peer reviewed. These are serious issues that have been raised. If the report is wrong then they're wrong, but if they're right then the NSW Government needs to do something about it," Mr Piper said after Hunter Environment Centre released the 124-pageOut of the Ashes report on Monday.
It used water sampling, laboratory testing, public documents and material obtained under freedom of information laws to conclude that 620 kilograms of heavy metals enter the lake system each year via huge daily power station water discharges and leaching from 60 million tonnes of dumped coal ash.
"We're supposed to have faith in the Environment Protection Authority as the state's environmental watchdog. Sometimes they just have to step up and do the work when issues are raised, as they have been here," Mr Piper said.
Hunter man Jamie Miller, 47, who has caught mud crabs at the north of Lake Macquarie on a roughly weekly basis for more than 20 years, said he felt "betrayed" at news a risk assessment in 2018 recommended no-one should eat mud crabs caught in the lake on a weekly basis because of high cadmium levels.
But instead of making the risk assessment public, the EPA advised anglers in January they could eat "crab meat" six times per month, but based the advice on blue swimmer crabs and not mud crabs. The risk assessment recommended one blue swimmer crab per week could be safely consumed.
The EPA reached the decision not to give a specific warning about mud crabs based on their low numbers in the lake, and because mud crabs made up less than 1 per cent of anglers' total hauls, compared with 12 per cent for blue swimmer crabs.
"It looks like they've decided there's not many mud crabs there, and not many people are catching them, so we don't really need to tell people they shouldn't be eating them. It's poor buggers like me who know how to catch a mud crab in half an hour who are left in the dark," Mr Miller said.
"They decided the small percentage of people who catch mud crabs weren't worth telling. But surely it's not just me eating mud crabs on a very regular basis. It's people who live on the waterfront around the western side of the lake and at Dora Creek."
Mr Miller supported the NSW Government funding a comprehensive and independent response to issues raised in the Out of the Ashes report, saying "it shouldn't be up to someone in the community to put the time, money and energy into a report when there's government agencies that should be doing it".
"I think the community would definitely like to know if it's safe to eat seafood out of the lake. If that involves more money being spent on funding that, it would be a good thing," Mr Miller said.
Report author Paul Winn, who has investigated 25 coal ash sites in South-East Asia in the past three years for environment group Water Keeper Alliance, criticised the EPA for a statement to the Newcastle Herald saying Eraring and Vales Point power station licences included "comprehensive and regular monitoring of ash dam water quality for a range of pollutants".
"The monitoring is actually pretty patchy, which is a point we made in the report. There's only one of the four discharge points from the power stations that has limits on heavy metal discharges," Mr Winn said.
He also questioned EPA methodology for testing evidence of heavy metal leaching from 60 million tonnes of coal ash waste from the power stations, saying a test on the same day once a month failed to pick up heavy metal discharge levels after rain.
"In my opinion they're doing as much as they can without costing the power stations too much money," Mr Winn said.
Hunter Environment Centre spokesperson Jo Lynch said the report was the centre's priority project for nine months and was funded by a $50,000 grant from an environmental charity fund.
Ms Lynch and Mr Winn criticised the lack of transparency about government monitoring and knowledge of the lake system. A freedom of information request for a groundwater seepage investigation at Vales Point has been the subject of repeated extension requests from the EPA.
"We'll eventually get it because we intend to get the full picture of what is known about the lake and heavy metals, but transparency between the community and power station operators needs to be greatly improved."
Mr Winn said the NSW Government needed to prioritise ensuring proper heavy metal discharge limits are set and monitored; levies on the dumping of coal ash and an investigation into the use of coal ash across the state.
"At the moment there are no limits on some heavy metals which means an environmental licence is basically a get out of jail free card for power stations," Mr Winn said.
"A levy is needed on the dumping of coal because these power stations are so old that they wouldn't be allowed to be built today with coal ash dumps as they now are. The least we can do is make sure power stations pay for the coal ash pollution.
"There needs to be a full investigation of what happens to coal ash that gets into the community via fertilisers, potting mixes and other uses, because it is not currently listed as a hazardous waste, and it should be."
The EPA said on-going groundwater monitoring and various studies and investigations at Eraring and Vales Point power stations "have provided no evidence of any leaching from the ash dams affecting groundwater quality".
"Environment protection licences can be reviewed and varied at any time and the EPA continues to work closely with NSW Health and other government agencies in considering the available evidence to inform regulatory priorities," a spokesperson said.