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The other curse of coal: what to do with toxic ash?

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If you think that burning coal only pollutes the atmosphere with its greenhouse gas emissions, think again – the ash dumps from these power plant ovens present their own toxic risks.

Australia’s coal-fired power plants produce 12 million tonnes of ash each year – but the silt, which turns to silky sludge when wet, could in fact be a valuable byproduct, according to an investigation.

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The recent NSW government survey of coal ash waste identified it as a resource that should be reused, as it can be made into an ingredient for cement.

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Coal ash consultant Ron McLaren says he has been pushing for decades for this reuse to happen, but with little effect as cement companies make more money using imported ingredients.

“Obviously the power plants are going to shut down, but there is still 10 years of ash,” he told AAP.

He estimates that Australian companies only reuse around 20% of their coal ash waste.

“ Shocking flaws ”

He was overall disappointed with the findings of the investigation, which he said appeared to be “a lot of words and no real action”.

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Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Bronya Lipski argues that coal ash is a toxic waste problem and that there are “shocking flaws” in the regulation of current landfills.

She agreed that the findings of the investigation are too weak.

“The committee is failing to make strong recommendations to address the issues it identifies,” she said in a statement.

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“People need to know more about how they are regulated, who is responsible, who foots the bill, and what full rehabilitation and closure planning should look like.”

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Security concerns

Ms Lipski supported plans to reuse coal ash, as long as it can be done safely.

In addition to highlighting the potential for reuse, the survey recommended better oversight and transparency from NSW’s environmental watchdog, the EPA, and the publication of baseline studies to measure the impact of waste.

Energy giant AGL has requested the extension of a coal ash dam containing waste from its coal-fired power plant in Bayswater, a few hours north of Sydney.

-with AAP

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