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AGL cops record penalty after hazardous coal-ash sludge spill into Bayswater Creek

Energy giant AGL has paid a record amount in rehabilitation costs, legal fees and community payments after a pipeline at its Bayswater power station burst and released 1,440 cubic metres of hazardous coal ash into Bayswater Creek on September 4, 2019. 

Clean-up and rehabilitation costs carried out by AGL came to $320,000 and the Enforceable Undertaking agreed to by AGL amounts to $1.108 million, one of the biggest in NSW history.

The failure of the pipeline that transported the coal ash released enough sludge to half-fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Coal-ash flowed into the creek for eight hours before it was detected because two monitors were not working. One was broken and the other was turned off.

AGL had been aware of potential integrity issues in the high-pressure coal-ash pipeline since 2014, five years before the pipe burst.

The EPA considered that the incident resulted in water pollution and other breaches of environmental legislation. 

Environment groups believe the response isn’t tough enough and have called for changes to ensure similar environmental breaches can never occur again. 

They’re also calling for an overhaul of coal-ash waste management, which is currently the subject of a NSW parliamentary inquiry.

Lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia uncovered the documents on the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry website, however the ‘enforceable undertaking’ isn’t currently available on the NSW EPA’s public register.

Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Jocelyn McGarity said: “Based on AGL’s poor history complying with its licence conditions, it is understandable that community groups feel a tougher response is warranted. 

“This is the second enforceable undertaking between the EPA and AGL this year. It comes after 52 licence non-compliances and numerous fines totalling over $100,000 in the past five years.

“AGL has failed to meet its legal obligations and has endangered the environment, yet has again avoided criminal prosecution.”

Hunter Community Environment Centre is calling for a $20 levy on every tonne of coal ash dumped in dams to incentivise power companies to find more environmentally acceptable ways of disposing of their waste. For example, coal ash can be reused in the manufacture of building products including lightweight aggregates.

HCEC spokesperson Jo Lynch said: “The practice of storing hazardous coal-ash waste on site at coal-fired power stations is a recipe for disaster.

“A coal-ash levy would enable waste that poses a high environmental risk on site to be transformed into high-quality recycled products ready for market.

“It's essential that the NSW Government support power companies to find safe uses for their waste to ensure incidents like these are avoided.”.”

Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said: “Coal-fired power is not just bad for our climate and the air our children breathe, it poisons our waterways and soils.

"These coal-fired power stations are getting very old so the risks to workers and the local environment are increasing. The sooner NSW phases out these old coal power stations the better for everyone."

 

BACKGROUND 

AGL Bayswater Creek Coal Ash Incident

Context

  • AGL had known about integrity issues in the high pressure coal ash pipeline since 2014 (enforceable undertaking point 1.12) and in 2017 prepared a report to the EPA outlining options to contain potential spills.
  • On 4 September 2019, the pipe carrying fly-ash waste from AGL’s Bayswater coal power generator in the Hunter Valley ruptured causing 1,440 m3 of coal ash slurry to be released. Some of this went into the Bayswater Creek (which was dry at the time).
  • AGL Macquarie Pty Ltd (AGL) notified the incident to the EPA.
  • AGL cleaned-up the waste.
  • The EPA has entered into an enforceable undertaking (EU) with AGL over the incident that will see AGL pay $600,000 to minimise the risk of a future hole in the pipeline occurring, $500,000 towards environmental restoration projects, and $8000 in training for staff for a total of $1.108 million.
  • An Enforceable Undertaking is a voluntary agreement between the EPA and an entity that admits wrongdoing and may involve commitments to clean up or rectify an incident.
  • AGL entered an EU with the EPA over using the wrong sampling methodology for coal ash relating to Bayswater and Liddell early this year. The total EU was $100,000. AGL also had an EU in 2013 for one of its gas projects.
  • According to the EPA register, none of the other current owners of NSW power stations have had any EUs with the EPA.
  • Looking through the media releases of EUs in the EPA website, this appears to be more than double the previous largest EU the EPA has entered into since 2012.
  • The information re the EU was made publicly available as part of the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the ‘Costs for remediation of sites containing coal ash repositories’ based on AGL’s response to questions on notice.

 

Non-compliances at Bayswater

Since 1 February 2015 Bayswater has recorded 52 non-compliances (including the latest incident), detailed in its Annual Returns.

This includes one non-compliance with licence conditions in 2017, and environmental legislation prohibiting water pollution, arising from a leak in the Ravensworth A Ash Line that caused ash slurry to be discharged from the pipe to land and waters. The Ravensworth Ash Line also failed in 2016 resulting in ash slurry discharge.

Since August 2015, AGL has been issued with 7 penalty notices relating to Bayswater, totalling $105,000.

This latest incident has resulted in the largest Enforceable Undertaking entered into by the EPA since at least 2012 in NSW. (Suggest the journalist asks the EPA if this is the biggest EU they have entered into with a coal-fired power station).

The EPA has only prosecuted AGL (in that case, AGL Upstream Investments Pty Ltd) on one prior occasion in 2018. That was in relation to alleged licence non-compliances relating to coal seam gas wells at its Camden Gas Plant. (What happened in this case? There is no final judgment, suggesting the EPA discontinued the matter).

LINKS: 

AGL Enforcement Undertaking 31 August 2020: https://apps.epa.nsw.gov.au/prpoeoapp/ViewNotice.aspx?ID=1600001

Images and video footage of Bayswater Coal Power Station including Coal Ash Dam: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1KbkMlsvR21ycgF3jTxO8MGI7Ie6mIjix 

 

 

 

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