The State Government's response to the recommendations of a parliamentary inquiry into the management of coal ash represented a "lost opportunity" for change, Lake Macquarie community groups say.
Similarly, Environmental Justice Australia, which has campaigned for reforms to coal ash disposal and storage, said the response had failed to provide communities with any reassurance the government would act to tackle problems associated with the toxic waste
About 200 million tonnes of coal ash waste is dumped in unlined sites across NSW, with more than half of the material stored in the Hunter and Central Coast. The waste problem is growing by about 3.8 million tonnes a year in NSW, the equivalent of seven tonnes of ash waste dumped per minute.
The 2020 inquiry's terms of reference included 'economic and employment opportunities associated with coal ash reuse, site remediation and repurposing of land, which community groups argued was a perfect opportunity for the government to support regional economies set to face jobs losses when coal-power stations close.
Hunter Community Environment Centre researcher Paul Winn said the government's response to the 16 recommendations failed to implement or even endorse the majority of the actions proposed in relation to reducing contamination.
"While it's welcome news the NSW EPA will complete an investigation into the full extent of coal-ash impacts, the issue of site decontamination and the government's liability has not been addressed," he said.
Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Bronya Lipski said the community had been left behind and it wasn't clear whether the EPA would adopt best practice to undertake remediation of the toxic waste sites.
"It appears that the government is still kicking the can down the road rather than implementing best-practice outcomes for communities who live near coal ash dams," Ms Lipski said.
"Best-practice requires genuine community engagement and participation. The government's failure to support the creation of a coal ash reuse taskforce for example, is a blow to public participation.
"And it's a kick in the guts to stakeholders in the NSW community who want to see a robust coal-ash reuse industry developed to achieve the two-fold benefit of protecting the environment and creating jobs."
Environmental Justice Australia released a blueprint last month for best practice implementation of four key recommendations from the inquiry. Ms Lipski said the NSW government's response did not reflect the best practice approach outlined in the report and supported by local community groups.
"Whilst the NSW EPA commitment to understanding more about coal-ash contamination in NSW is welcomed, this must result in best practice operation, maintenance and rehabilitation planning for these enormous, toxic sites," she said.
"How much longer does the NSW government, and EPA, intend to delay genuine development and implementation of rigorous rehabilitation planning and coal as reuse strategies?
"And of course, the elephant in the room here is that the coal ash inquiry was unable to uncover the costs associated with the remediation of coal ash dams in NSW, and the NSW government hasn't addressed it either. The final kick in the guts is for the public interest in how much the NSW taxpayer will be charged for clean-up."
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