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.

Costs for remediation of coal ash dams

The NSW Legislative Council’s Public Works Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories in NSW.

The EPA contributed to a Government submission to the inquiry and appeared before the Committee to respond to questions relating to the regulation of coal ash repositories and additional questions raised at the public hearing.

The Committee will consider all the evidence and submissions and is due to report by 31 March 2021.

The Government will respond to the Committee’s recommendations when the inquiry is finished.

Review of the regulatory approach to coal ash

In the meantime, the EPA will continue to review and consider its regulatory approach for these premises within its legislative responsibility, by responding to new information, data and evidence and levels of environmental risk.

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