Coal ash dams

Coal ash is the mineral by-product remaining from burning coal to generate electricity.

The composition of coal ash depends on the chemistry of the coal being burnt. It is made up mainly of silicon and other minerals but can contain high concentrations of heavy metals and other contaminants. 

Many of the contaminants are bound in the ash but still must be carefully dealt with to prevent potential pollution. 

In NSW, coal ash has historically been stored in dry emplacements or wet coal ash dams.

Re-use of coal ash

The amount of coal ash re-used in NSW has grown in recent years and the EPA supports its increased re-use where it is safe to do so. 

In NSW, the re-use of coal ash is regulated through the EPA’s Coal Ash Order (PDF 81KB) and Exemption (PDF 51KB) under the Resource Recovery Framework. 

It is only considered appropriate where the re-use

  • is genuine, rather than a means of waste disposal
  • is beneficial or fit-for-purpose; and
  • will not cause harm to human health or the environment.

Regulation of coal ash dams

The EPA has a comprehensive and robust regulatory framework for regulating coal-fired power stations with coal ash dams, primarily through environment protection licensing. Coal fired power stations are required to hold an environment protection licence (EPL) under Schedule 1 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act (POEO Act).

The EPL sets out what is required of the licence holder to prevent or minimise pollution to surface water, groundwater or air.

Licence conditions include monitoring, assessing and reporting on any environmental impacts, including ash dams.

Dams Safety NSW is responsible for regulating certain aspects of coal ash dams. The EPA has a memorandum of understanding (PDF 458KB)   with Dams Safety NSW for the regulation of declared dams.

Costs for remediation of coal ash dams

The NSW Government has supported or supported in principle the vast majority of the Public Works Committee’s 16 recommendations on the Costs of remediating sites containing coal ash repositories inquiry.

The whole of government response includes actions from a range of agencies, including the NSW EPA. The NSW Government tabled its response in Parliament on 17 September 2021.

The response comes after the NSW Legislative Council Public Works Committee conducted an inquiry in October 2019 into the Costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories in NSW.

The NSW EPA contributed to a Government submission to the inquiry. We also appeared before the Committee’s public hearings to respond to questions including about the regulation of coal ash repositories.

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