While the word ‘inquiry’ might conjure up images of people sitting in a stuffy room speaking legalese, the revelations of the inquiry into coal mine rehabilitation have been anything but boring. In my role as Safe Climate Campaign Manager, I have been representing Environment Victoria at the judicial inquiry into mine rehabilitation in the Latrobe Valley – part of the re-opened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry. As a result we have learnt some shocking details about the current plans for rehabilitation of brown coal mines in the Latrobe Valley.
Were Gippsland’s water resources plentiful this might be less of a problem. But water is a valuable resource, and it appears nobody has clear answers to the inevitable questions. Is there enough water? Where will it come from? How long will it take to fill the pits? What will the water quality be like? Will rivers need to be diverted into the mines? What happens to the places that lose water as the mines fill? Astonishingly, it seems that neither the mine owners nor the regulator (who approves the rehabilitation plans) has had any substantive contact with the water authorities, and the water authorities are not even involved in the process of approving rehabilitation plans that will need enormous volumes of water.
That’s A LOT of water…
For Hazelwood, it could take literally hundreds of years.
Rehabilitation plan for Latrobe Valley coal mine ‘too silly to explain’, Hazelwood inquiry told https://t.co/SEzpMs434Q
— ABC News Melbourne (@abcnewsMelb) December 8, 2015
Coal mines estimates of rehab costs: Hazelwood: $73m Loy Yang: $54 Yallourn: $46-91m That’s THEIR estimates. Still way above $15m bonds.
— Nicholas Aberle (@NickAberle) December 13, 2015
Bonds held by the government to ensure the mines are cleaned up after use are around $15 million per mine. Compare this with one independent expert’s assessment that rehabilitation at the Hazelwood mine alone could run to $332 million. Even at more conservative estimates, the taxpayers of Victoria are chronically exposed to an enormous financial burden (and an environmental hazard) should a mine operator default on its obligations.
— ABC News Melbourne (@abcnewsMelb) December 17, 2015
In a stroke-of-midnight pre-inquiry move, a new work plan for AGL’s Loy Yang mine was approved in which all mention of providing for community recreation was gone. Instead the mine would remain in private hands even after rehabilitation was complete – the exact opposite of the positive asset the community wanted.
The regulator was criticised at the inquiry for appearing to have only recently realised that they need to be setting clear objectives or criteria for rehabilitation. For too long, mine operators have had insufficient guidance on what is required.
With global action to protect our climate gaining momentum the question isn’t if these mines will need rehabilitation, but when. Given this inevitability, and the massive risks to the Latrobe Valley community, to our environment and to the Victorian taxpayer, there is a staggering list of unanswered questions over how mine rehabilitation is going to be achieved.
Rehabilitation ought to transform the mines into some other kind of community asset, and a failure to address this challenge would come at an enormous cost to the community who remains long after the miners have gone.
The local historian witness at the inquiry, David Langmore, summed up the situation best: how to rehabilitate these coal mines is arguably one of the biggest environmental problems facing Victoria over coming decades.
With a growing number of mines in need of rehabilitation across the country, the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry has an opportunity to take a big step for all states to follow. A step towards managing these problems from the outset; towards ensuring mining companies can’t shirk their responsibilities; and towards giving communities a proper say over their future.