Coal ash has become one of Australia's biggest waste problems — and a solution is being ignored

Coal ash is one of Australia's biggest waste problems and accounts for nearly one-fifth of the entire nation's waste stream.

Every year Australian coal-fired power stations produce 12 million tonnes of ash from burning coal.

Per capita, that is 500 kilograms a year for every Australian.

The ash is captured in the power station smoke stacks, and most of it is mixed with water to create a sludge which is pumped into large containment dams that continue to grow each day.

"The biggest problem is trying to explain to people how big the problem is," Paul Winn, an environmentalist who has spent years investigating coal ash, said.

"Most ash dams are hidden behind large fences within power stations, and I would say most people in Australia have never seen one. When you do they're very, very stark."

Across Australia the biggest ash dams can be found at Eraring, Vales Point, Liddell and Bayswater in NSW, Gladstone and Millmerran in Queensland and the now-closed Port Augusta in South Australia.

Environmental concern

Coal ash contains high concentrations of heavy metals, which Mr Winn said can pollute surrounding areas, either by controlled releases by the power stations, emergency dam overflows in heavy rain, or through seepage into the soil.