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Minister Kean in Parliament October 22nd

22 October 2019

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (15:14:36): My question is directed to the Minister for Energy and Environment. Given that coal-fired power stations in New South Wales produce up to an estimated 8 million tonnes of coal ash every year, yet typically repurpose less than 30 per cent of it, will the Minister act to have power companies maximise the beneficial re-use of this material and reduce the impact of storing this toxic waste?

Mr MATT KEAN (Hornsby—Minister for Energy and Environment) (15:15:05): What a great question from a great member. He is the best member that Lake Macquarie has ever had. He is also the first non‑Labor member that it has ever had. Is that any coincidence? That is a very sensible question. I know the interest the member for Lake Macquarie has in both re-using and recycling, as well as in the coal-fired power industry.

Mr Jihad Dib: Did you give it to him, mate?

Mr MATT KEAN: No, on this occasion he gave it to me. This issue is close to the heart of the member for Lake Macquarie, because the Eraring Power Station is in his electorate. I also know that the member for Swansea is very interested in this issue because of the Vales Point Power Station. As the member for Lake Macquarie correctly points out, these power stations create a large amount of coal ash. According to 2016 data from the Ash Development Association of Australia, around 5.65 million tonnes of coal ash is produced in New South Wales annually. Coal ash is the fly ash and bottom ash, sometimes called coal combustion products, generated from the burning of coal for electricity generation.

Earlier this year an ABC article year noted that 500 kilograms of coal ash are generated each year per person in Australia. That is a huge amount of waste being created. This is one of Australia's biggest waste problems and accounts for nearly one-fifth of Australia's waste stream, but the good news is that coal ash can be re‑used and the re-use of coal ash for beneficial purposes is regulated by the Environment Protection Authority [EPA] in New South Wales via the coal ash order 2014, issued under the Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulation 2014.

For the benefit of the House, coal ash is re-used primarily by the cement industry, but it is also used as an engineering fill material. During 2018-19 approximately 21 per cent of ash generated from Vales Point and approximately 35 per cent of ash generated from Eraring was recycled. These rates are below the international best practice—in fact, they are well below the world average. Around 44 per cent of ash is recycled worldwide. Australia's utilisation of coal ash is one of the worst in the world and certainly compares unfavourably with India, which re-uses about 61 per cent; China, which re-uses about 69 per cent; the United Kingdom, which re‑uses 70 per cent; and Japan, which re-uses 97 per cent. We can and must do better.

Coal ash can act as a partial substitute for cement. Evidence suggests that coal ash makes the concrete technically better and reduces the amount of cement used in concrete. This is good not only from a resource re‑use perspective but also because cement is one of the largest producers of carbon emissions. Anything we can do to reduce carbon emissions is a good thing—noting that there are dangerous elements in coal ash that we do not want to see put into our natural environment. For example, the coal ash order 2014 sets limits for metals that are consistent with levels that occur naturally in the environment. Without undermining this robust regulatory framework, I echo the member for Lake Macquarie in saying that I want to see as much of this ash re-used as possible.

The Government is currently developing its 20-Year Waste Strategy for NSW, which will look at how we can reduce, re-use and recycle a number of different waste products. I commit to the member for Lake Macquarie and the House that the Government will include coal ash in the scope of the work it is doing and will ensure that it has a policy in place to increase the required re-use of coal ash going forward. As part of this work I will look at the development of re-use industries in New South Wales—including in the electorates of Lake Macquarie and Swansea—once we speak to the members.

The Government wants to encourage the re-use of a range of waste products across New South Wales and will look at re‑using coal ash in bricks, construction blocks and lightweight aggregate. If players like the cement industry will not jump on board and do the right thing then the Government will look at measures that require them to do so, but the Government wants to work with industry to get the right result. I was disturbed to hear recently that in Queensland the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission fined the cement industry $20 million for restricting the supply of coal ash. For the benefit of the House, the cement industry has a direct contract with the power stations and it restricts the use of that supply from going to other industries and businesses that may want to find a beneficial re-use of that product. [Extension of time]

It not good enough that the cement industry is restricting the ability for other industries potentially to find innovative ways to use coal ash. The Government wants to open that up and see a circular economy when it comes to coal ash, but it also does not want to put unnecessary costs into the marketplace. The Government wants to see power stations do the right thing and help to re-use this product beneficially so that we can protect the environment and ensure that the Government does not have to step in directly. In summary, for the benefit of the member for Lake Macquarie, I understand that coal ash is a big issue. The Government does not want to see it seeping out into the natural environment. Strict regulations in place administered by the EPA. The Government wants to ensure that those regulations are enforced, but it also wants to encourage the re-use of this product.

Coal ash does have a beneficial re-use, particularly when it comes to cement not only because it gives a better quality of cement but also because it will help to reduce the carbon emissions created by cement. Cement production is the second-highest generator of carbon emissions so if that can be reduced it obviously will also have a beneficial impact on the economy. I look forward to working with the member for Lake Macquarie and other members who are interested in the Government's 20-year waste strategy to increase the rate of recycling and re‑use of products and waste in New South Wales.