High heavy-metal levels found in bird feathers near NSW coal-fired power stations

Environmentalists say they have evidence that large coal ash waste dams at coal-fired power stations could be contaminating birdlife with potentially toxic heavy metals.

The Hunter Community Environment Center collected 31 bird feathers from downstream waterways of ash dams at all five power stations in NSW.

The group’s researcher Paul Winn said testing found two-thirds of the feathers had heavy metal concentrations above health and reproductive success thresholds.

“It’s not conclusive but it’s certainly evidence that the same metals are being leached from the ash dams are bioaccumulating in our water bird species,” Mr Winn said.

A man with large feathers in his hand and a power station in the background
Hunter Community Environment Center member Paul Winn’s organization has been testing bird feathers collected at Lake Liddell in the Hunter Valley.(ABC News: Ben Millington)

“And it means it could be impacting their health, behavior or their reproduction.”

The feathers were collected at Lake Liddell and Lake Macquarie in the Hunter region and Lake Wallace near Lithgow in the Central Tablelands.

calm lake waters with black swans on the water and smoke stacks in background
Lake Liddell is home to a large black swan population and more than 100 other species.(Supplied: Hunter Community Environment Center)

Mr Winn said three birds — two black swans from Lake Liddell and one cormorant from Lake Macquarie — showed elevated levels of three or more heavy metals.

He said all bird feathers from Lake Liddell, a breeding ground for more than 100 bird species, showed elevated levels of selenium.

“We found two cormorant feathers that had selenium concentrations that was acutely toxic,” Mr Winn said.

“That’s where the toxicity is such that it may kill them.”

A calm blue lake with a large power station in the background.
Lake Liddell supplied cooling water to the Liddell Power station near Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley.(ABC News: Ben Millington)

Will coal ash be a legacy pollution issue?

Coal ash is the waste product of burning coal for electricity and accounts for about 18 percent of Australia’s entire waste stream.

The ash contains high concentrations of metals such as selenium, lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury.

Mr Winn said the metals are leaching from the unlined ash dams into groundwater, or entering waterways during controlled releases or overspill events in heavy rain.

Ian Wright, a Western Sydney University expert in water pollution from coal, said the bird feather contamination results were alarming.

He said the report should trigger NSW government scientists to do “far more work to tighten the exact cause and effect”.

“This is a horrible legacy we could be passing on to next generations and to the ecosystem,” Dr Wright said.

The ash dam at Liddell power station in the Hunter Valley is estimated to contain 39 million tonnes of coal ash.(Supplied: Hunter Community Environment Center)

Currently, the preferred method of rehabilitation is to cover the ash dams with compacted dirt, but Dr Wright said this was inadequate for the dams in NSW, all of which have no lining membrane to prevent leachate.

The Liddell power station is set to close next year and more will follow over the coming decade.

Mr Winn is pushing for the development of a coal ash recycling industry which would resue the ash to make concrete and other building products.

“It’s a win-win. You create new jobs and remove the pollution problem,” he said.


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