2021 August: Swanbank A coal fired power station. PFAS

Coal-fired power pollution from Ipswich’s Swanbank power station a ‘toxic time bomb’ for nearby residents

12 August 2021


Nearly a decade after the Swanbank A coal-fired power station closed, the toxic pollution left behind is yet to be properly dealt with.

Experts have raised concern this poses a “ticking time bomb” for nearby residents and local wildlife in Collingwood Park, west of Brisbane.

Toxic by-products from burning fuel in the now-decommissioned coal-fired generator have never left the power station site and there is no formal plan to remove it or make the site safe.

Collingwood Park resident Wendy Davidson said she wants to see something done about the site but was not holding out much hope.

“The people of Ipswich have been totally ignored and they’ve been environmentally brutalised again and again,” she said.

Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Bronya Lipski said residents were right to be worried.

Ms Lipski authored the 2019 report Unearthing Australia’s Toxic Coal Ash Legacy, which raised concerns about the lack of information available and action taken to address ash dams and power stations in Australia.

She said there was concern over a range of serious health issues in populations next to decommissioned power stations and ash dams.

“A whole range of ‘lifestyle impacts’ are blamed for a range of health issues which are associated with poor environmental health.

“We can’t blame the community for not going for enough walks or eating too much Maccas in their lives.”

UQ Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre’s Professor David Cliff said health issues linked to chemicals found in ash dams could include cancers, birth defects and organ damage.

However, he said this depends on what chemicals were present in each dam, and different sites had different levels of risk.

Dried up sludge

The bulk of the toxic material sits in the dry ash dam neighbouring the station – what was once a massive pool of sludge has become a mound of dried ash.

The site owner, state-owned energy company CleanCo, told ABC News in a statement the dam contains “primarily silicon, aluminium, iron, calcium, manganese, potassium, sodium, titanium” and that “PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) has been detected in the ash dam”.

The Department of Environment and Science (DES) said the dam contained “fluoride, sulfate, chloride, sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium”.

DES would not say if it knew the concentrations of the chemicals in the dam.

Documents seen by the ABC show the dam has been regularly tested for arsenic, boron, chromium, mercury, molybdenum, selenium and vanadium.

All can be toxic to humans and animals.

What’s the risk?

Research in the US found ash can blow from the tops of the dams and poses the most acute risk of respiratory illnesses and cancers.

The dam at Swanbank has been capped with pampas grass to mitigate this risk; but before the grass was in place, nearby residents said large amounts of dust would regularly blow into their homes.

Ms Lipski said despite the capping, the dam could also be leaching the chemicals into waterways.

Bundamba Creek is a short walk from the edge of the dam. It flows into the Bremer River and eventually reaches the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay.

CleanCo said the dam was lined with compacted coalstone and an “impermeable clay layer”.

It said there are monitoring sites at the dam and pumps that help to prevent contaminated water leaching into the groundwater.

Ms Lipski said clay layers would still allow some water through, depending on the type of clay. She said best practice was to line the dams with a geotechnical layer as well as other measures.

Many of the toxic materials are bioaccumulants, meaning they are present in the wildlife that lives in the river and could contribute to making fish and other creatures in the river unsafe for human consumption.

Ms Lipski said in the US it sometimes took decades for the impact of burning coal to be detected.

“We start to see deformed frogs being born and deformed fish being born. That’s not indicative of an ecosystem that’s healthy,” she said.

“If people have not known for some time that they’ve been eating fish and crabs et cetera that have been accumulating these toxic chemicals, that can lead to poorer health outcomes.

“If it’s not removed now, will we see a problem in 100 years when people in Brisbane are trying to drink water and they’re developing all sorts of health impacts?”

Health issues linked to chemicals found in ash dams include cancers, birth defects and organ damage.

The Queensland government already warns people against eating fish caught in certain parts of the Brisbane and Bremer rivers, because of the risk of PFAS contamination.

Will it be fixed?

Mansour Edraki from the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute said coal ash dams needed to be properly managed to eliminate health and environmental risks.

“This should largely happen when the power stations are still active, to maximise the use of resources.

“The goal is a safe, stable and non-polluting environment after the life of a coal-fired power station.”

The last coal generator in Swanbank was decomissioned in 2012.

CleanCo told the ABC the rehabilitation plan was still being finalised, but it has $57 million set aside to rehabilitate the site.

Ms Lipski said inaction on cleaning up ash dams and power stations was common across the country.

“There’s no comprehensive remediation plans associated with coal ash dams throughout Australia,” Ms Lipski said.

“Short of putting a cap over the ash dams when the plant is decommissioned, the dams just sit there.

Ms Lipski said she did not believe $57 million would be enough to rehabilitate the site.

‘Still no plan’

State Greens Member for Maiwar Michael Berkman has raised similar concerns in a question on notice to the state government.

“I’m very sceptical whether CleanCo has enough money set aside to rehabilitate the dam, because until they develop a plan that’s compliant with the environmental authority there’s no way of knowing the actual cost.

“Ipswich residents deserve better than another big dump at their doorstep with no plan to clean it up.”

Ms Davidson said she felt like the degraded landscape at Swanbank, once used for mining coal and now dumping waste, would be used as an excuse to let the ash dam and power station sit unrehabilitated.

“They won’t [clean up the site]. This is Ipswich we’re talking about. It’s not the Gold Coast, it’s not the Sunshine Coast. It’s like we don’t exist.

“We’re only 25 kilometres out [of Brisbane] but we’re considered our own island of waste and filth.”