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Never mind the mercury: Indonesia says coal ash isn’t hazardous

  • The Indonesian government has taken fly ash and bottom ash from coal burning out of its list of hazardous waste.
  • The distinction is crucial as the handling of “hazardous” waste is subject to different and far more stringent regulations than non-hazardous waste.
  • The delisting comes in response to lobbying efforts by industry groups, which want to be allowed to sell coal ash to the construction industry.
  • Indonesia is one of the world’s top coal producers, and the fossil fuel accounts for the majority of the country’s power generation.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has declared coal ash is no longer a hazardous waste product, despite containing heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic, in a nod to industry efforts for greater deregulation.

Fly ash and bottom ash from the burning of coal in power plants or other industrial facilities are now deemed inert or non-hazardous waste, under a new government regulation issued Feb. 2. The regulation is a derivative of the so-called omnibus law on job creation — a controversial package of deregulation measures passed by parliament last October that activists warned would serve the interests of the mining and “dirty energy” industry.

The distinction is crucial, as the handling of hazardous waste is subject to different and far more stringent regulations.

“The decision to erase these coal wastes from the list of hazardous waste is problematic and a very bad news for the sustainability of the environment and public health,” Trend Asia, an NGO that advocates for wider use of clean energy, said in a statement March 10.

“Coal wastes are highly toxic to the environment and public health as they contain chemical compounds such as arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, etc.,” it added.

Coal accounts for the majority of Indonesia’s power generation at present and is expected to continue dominating the energy mix until at least 2025.

View of the Suralaya coal power plant in Cilegon city, Banten province, Indonesia. Image by Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace.

Trend Asia said the government’s decision caters to industry associations that demanded in June 2020 that fly ash and bottom coal ash be removed from the hazardous waste list. The groups are looking to use the ash as raw material for making paving blocks and concrete, or for mixing in with other construction materials. President Joko Widodo’s top priorities include infrastructure development across the country.

Some of the industry associations that demanded the reclassification of fly and bottom coal ash include the Indonesian Coal Mining Association (APBI), the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI), the Indonesian Pulp and Paper Association (APKI), and the Indonesian Textile Association (API). Some of these associations have also said the classification of coal ash as hazardous has hampered their efforts to sell the waste for reuse, resulting in 10 million metric tons of it piling up annually.

In a 2016 study, Greenpeace warned that an estimated 3 million people across Indonesia are exposed to microscopic particles, known as PM2.5, at levels exceeding World Health Organization guidelines, as a result of emissions from coal-fired power plants. Long-term exposure to such particulates can cause acute respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease.

Indonesia’s reliance on coal has become problematic both economically and ecologically. Lower-than-expected electricity demand, rising costs, and financial obligations are squeezing the state-owned power utility, and ultimately the government’s finances. Coal mining has also destroyed some of the archipelago’s rainforests and claimed many lives, while the pollution from coal-fired plants continues to jeopardize the health of millions.

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