Environmental Justice Australia lawyers concerned about 400 hectare ash dam

Delta Electricity Company Secretary, Steve Gurney, has labelled community concerns about the structural integrity of the ash dam at Vales Point Power Station as “mischievous”.
The Vales Point Power Station has a 50-year-old coal ash dam, or dump, where it stores its coal ash, a by-product of burning coal to make electricity.
The NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed it has been contacted by a member of the public regarding the Vales Point ash dam “and the EPA has met with the individual concerned.
“The Vales Point power station operates under strict Environmental Protection Licence conditions to protect the community and the environment,” the EPA statement said.
“If breaches of these conditions occur, the EPA will take action.”
Mr Gurney said Delta Electricity was licensed to accept clean fill (VENM and ENM) from projects such as NorthConnex to use as capping on the ash dam.
“We can take as much as we want,” he said.
“Once we have reached the point where a part of the dam is full, we cover it with 45cm of VENM and then add topsoil and revegetate,” Gurney said.
He said such a revegetated area would be the location for Delta’s proposed solar plant at Vales Point.
He confirmed the ash dam was not required to be lined, adding, “Ash is an inert product that goes into a void, but we are required, under the Dam Safety Act, to have ongoing monitoring.
“We are one of those sites that is heavily regulated, heavily monitored,” he said.
However, according to Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), the Vales Point Ash “dump” has been identified as a major public and environmental health risk for generations to come.
“Delta’s actions at Vales Point have cemented its reputation as a bad neighbour, with a lax approach to environmental regulations and a disregard for community health,” James Whelan from the EJA said.
The EJA, citing reputable research from the United States, has argued that, rather than being inert, coal ash contains a toxic stew of chemicals, including chromium, lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium.
Delta’s filling or rehabilitation of the ash dump at Vales Point is also fraught with environmental alarm bells, according to EJA.
According to a compliance audit conducted by the NSW EPA in 2016, the Vales Point ash dam disposes of its ash by pumping it as a slurry to the purpose built ash dam adjacent to the power station.
It is a prescribed dam managed by the NSW Dam Safety Committee and an uncontrolled loss would be rated as “significant”, if it did occur.
Mr Gurney confirmed the contractor that Delta uses to import clean fill to the Vales Point site has accepted fill from the NorthConnex project at the southern end of the M1 Motorway.
An anonymous member of the community told the Wyong Regional Chronicle that the weight of the fill is causing damage to the unlined dirt walls of the dump.
Dr Whelan said he had asked Central Coast Council and the NSW Government what they intended to do to manage “the toxic legacy of a massive landfill contaminating our community for generations to come”.
He said a current Senate inquiry into mine site rehabilitation had its terms of reference expanded to include ash dams, due to emerging problems related to ash dams in Australia.
“This needs a serious solution from the State Government; it needs to be managed more carefully,” he said.
According to Whelan, even though Delta is covering parts of the Vales Point ash dump with fill, “ash is still going in.
“From the air, you can see the pipeline that carries ash into this 400 hectare ash dump, which is spreading south-west towards Wyee.
“This ash dump is as big as three suburbs.
“There is not another toxic landfill anywhere in the country as big as the Vales Point ash dump in an urban area.
“Councillors by and large look at me with concern but then say ‘isn’t that the responsibility of the state government?’.
“I asked NSW Environment Minister, Danielle Upton, three questions about the government’s standards for rehabilitation and remediation.
“She looked me in the eye and made a commitment to provide that information and she didn’t.
“Those three questions were how are you going to clean it up, how much is it going to cost and where will the money come from?
“The NSW Planning Minister also needs to answer the question, ‘what are you going to do with 400 hectares of toxic waste in the middle of a city, because that is where it will be as the Central Coast and Lake Macquarie expand.”
Whelan said the oldest part of the Vales Point ash dump was at the northern end [near Doyalson].
“That is where they intend to put their solar plant in an effort to raise their green credentials,” he said.
“We are a team of environmental lawyers, we love solar, but the only place in the country where we are concerned about solar is Vales Point, because it will be like putting icing on a toxic cake,” he said.
Another EJA lawyer, Bronya Lipski, said “Coal ash is the toxic waste material that doesn’t go into the air when coal is burnt to make electricity.
“In most situations, including on the Central Coast, the coal ash is mixed with water and pumped to a muddy, toxic lake near the power station.
“This toxic slurry can leak into aquifers, contaminating groundwater.
“It can dry out and blow off premises causing air pollution.
“Coal ash contains significant amounts of heavy metals that can cause harm to human and environmental health.
“Coal ash is linked to heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and stroke.
“Unfortunately, in Australia, communities that live around ash dumps often don’t have a good understanding of the risks they’re exposed to while these facilities are operational.
“The Central Coast is one of the fastest-growing areas of NSW.
“People are right to be concerned about living close to these ash dumps.
“Ideally, ash dams should be lined with upper and lower components that are impermeable.
“This will go some way to protecting groundwater from ash leachate and seepage.
“Strict monitoring of the ash levels is needed to prevent flooding and spills.
“There needs to be a comprehensive groundwater monitoring network so authorities know what contaminants are in the dam.
“Dam integrity is fundamental to protecting the community and minimising the likelihood of pollution occurring in land, groundwater and surface water.
“The EPA and the Dams Safety Commission must investigate any risk to dam integrity as a matter of priority.
“The consequences of dam failure could be catastrophic to the local environment and potentially to people.
“We’re concerned about the absence of national best practice guidelines for ash dam rehabilitation.
“Industry practice is to dry out the ash and cover it with a glue-like substance, then cover it with 30mm of topsoil and grow grass on it.
“Given the toxicity of the material, I’m not convinced this is an adequate way to prevent future contamination risks to groundwater and soil contamination, and I’m concerned about the suitability for these sites for future land use.
“Rehabilitation is going to cost millions of dollars.
“As far as I am aware, the power stations in NSW are not required to maintain a financial assurance to the EPA to protect the taxpayer from footing the bill for rehabilitation.
“Ideally, all the power stations should have closure and post-closure care plans for the ash dams.
“The communities that live nearby should be consulted throughout this process.
“They’re going to have to live with the toxic legacy, so they should be deeply engaged in the management and rehabilitation process,” she said.
EJA said it had also been alerted to community concerns about ground water contamination and the discharge of water from the power station into the lakes system.

Media release, Aug 14
Josh Meadows, Environmental Justice Australia
Interview, Aug 16
James Whelan, Environmental Justice Australia
Media statement, Aug 17
Bronya Lipski, Environmental Justice Australia
Interview, Aug 20
Steve Gurney, Delta Electricity
Jackie Pearson, journalist

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