Burning coal to generate electricity has resulted in Latrobe Valley’s power stations producing millions of tonnes of coal ash every year that needs to be stored, managed, rehabilitated, and if safe, reused. 

So, is coal ash dangerous and what will happen to these enormous ash dams/ponds when the power stations close?

Studies note that coal ash is more toxic than raw coal, containing concentrated versions of the heavy metals and other toxins in unburned coal, such as mercury, lead, selenium, cadmium, radium, and fine particle pollutions.

This means that the landfill sites that the coal ash slurry is pumped into must be properly engineered, monitored – and rehabilitated – to make sure that none of these toxins make their way into our waterways, and potentially harm aquatic life or human health.

Yallourn and Hazelwood have ash dams inside their mines. Loy Yang B doesn’t have an ash dam, instead it pipes its coal ash to Loy Yang A’s ash facilities. 

Many of the Latrobe Valley ash dams were built before EPA had guidelines and consequently have been leaching into surrounding groundwater.

In these circumstances, the ash dam’s linings are not adequate to prevent contamination seeping into groundwater, which can then flow into surface water.

In the recent Environment Protection Authority review of brown coal power station licences it included new licence conditions for Yallourn and Loy Yang A requiring the operators to complete coal ash rehabilitation plans by December 2021.

As the current framework guidelines are not fit for purpose it is essential the Latrobe Valley community be involved genuine community consultation and the development of the power station ash dam rehabilitation plans to support closure planning and a clean, healthy environment for our community. 

The need for stronger fit-for purpose guidelines is also nessacary with the new proposed Latrobe Magnesium plant. The importance is highlighted by the company themselves, as noted in their webinar on 17th September that “fly ash ponds in the Latrobe Valley pose a health and environmental risk to surrounding areas”.

Public access to research underpinning this project is vital for community support of a new reuse industry. Workers need to be sure they are not being exposed to the next asbestos.

Along with lead author Bronya Lipski (Environmental Justice Australia), we are creating a community guide to cleaning up Latrobe Valley’s toxic ash dams – an easy-to-read informative publication about what coal ash is, the threat is poses and how we can go about keeping our community safe well into the future. If you would like to receive a copy of the guide, please join our mailing list.

First published in Yallourn North Connection.