Coal Power Haunts South Australia’s Port Augusta

Coal ash pollution - Port AugustaImage : Port Augusta City Council

The coal-fired Northern Power Station in South Australia’s Port Augusta may have shut down nearly 8 months ago, but a potentially toxic legacy remains.

Ash left over from burning coal was stored in a 220 hectare site close to the shuttered station. It had been treated with a dust suppressant in November, but heavy rains broke through the crust. Winds have recently whipped up the ash, creating a haze affecting the city.

“The Port Augusta City Council is alarmed and dismayed at the environmental and health impacts as ash from the former Alinta Power Station, along with foul odours from the associated lakes, engulfs the City,” says part of a statement (PDF) from Council issued last week.

While some have played down the risk of the dust, SA Health has warned it could have impacts.

“The levels of metals are low. However dust particles themselves are well known for their potential to cause respiratory and cardiovascular health problems. They can also irritate eyes, throat and skin,” says SA Health (PDF).

Port Augusta coal ash dam

Image : Google Earth

Council has called for urgent action and assistance to properly remediate the ash dams and lakes.

“It is completely unacceptable that the Council and community of Port Augusta are left to deal with an environmental disaster arising from the closure of the Power Stations,” said Port Augusta Mayor, Sam Johnson.

Owner of the station, Flinders Power, plans to eventually cover the ash dams with soil and vegetate the area. Because of the time-frames involved, dust suppressant has been considered the best option in the short term. Flinders Power began re-spraying dust suppressant onto the ash dams last Wednesday according to South Australia’s EPA.

Craig Wilkins, chief executive of the Conservation Council of SA, says the community of Port Augusta has been let down.

“What’s happening at Port Augusta is the clearest example yet of why a clearer plan for South Australia’s energy future is desperately needed,” he said.

Mr. Wilkins says a good first step would be for the Weatherill Government to respond to a call from the Port Augusta community for a solar thermal + storage plant to replace the power station.

In August last year, an open letter signed by parties including the Mayor of Port Augusta, Port Augusta City Council and Repower Port Augusta was sent to Premier Weatherill, urging his government to get behind the well-documented project.

Port Augusta has significant solar energy resources, experiencing irradiation levels of around 4.98 kilowatt hours per square metre daily.

Another major renewable energy project for the region that looks set to go ahead is the Port Augusta Renewable Energy Park, which was given the green light in August last year. It will comprise up to 59 wind turbines and 1.6 million solar panels; with a collective generation capacity of up to 375 MW. Construction is expected to commence this year.