Blog | 9th Feb, 2016

8 outrageous things we learnt at the inquiry into coal mine rehabilitation

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.

The Background:

  • There are three brown coal mines in the Latrobe Valley, Hazelwood (owned by GDF Suez), Yallourn (owned by EnergyAustralia) and Loy Yang (owned by AGL). Together they produce over 60 million tonnes of coal per year for power stations adjacent to the mines.
  • Mine rehabilitation basically means repairing the damage caused by mining: covering up the exposed coal and turning the huge coal mines into something other than a massive toxic hole so that it won’t catch on fire (again) or collapse (again), and ideally so that it becomes something the community can enjoy.
  • In early 2014 a fire at Hazelwood mine raged for 45 days and blanketed the surrounding area in toxic smoke after disused parts of mine caught fire. A subsequent inquiry found that rehabilitation of disused mines was essential to prevent future fires.
  • As a pre-election commitment in November 2014, Daniel Andrews promised to re-open the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry firstly to consider emerging evidence that the smoke from the fire caused deaths in the Latrobe Valley (the report released last week showed that the fire ‘likely’ contributed to an increase in deaths) and secondly to determine how to improve coal mine rehabilitation. The re-opened inquiry also expanded the scope to include the other two mines in the Latrobe Valley.
  • Up until now, the assumed solution for rehabilitation has been that the holes will just fill with water.

What we learnt…

1. The amount of water needed to fill the three Victorian coal mines is almost as much as all the environmental water to be recovered under the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan (about 2200 gigalitres).

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.

2. It will require more water than is in all of Sydney Harbour to fill Yallourn mine alone.

Sydney Harbour

That’s A LOT of water…

Credit: Deborah & Kevin

3. Southern Rural Water said that Loy Yang mine could take more than 85 years to fill.

For Hazelwood, it could take literally hundreds of years.

4. A letter from one of the government’s main mine advisors said aspects of the rehabilitation plan for the Loy Yang coal mine were ”too silly to waste time explaining why”.

5. The bonds for mine rehabilitation are so low that, as one community witness said, it “almost invites miners to walk away.”

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.

6. The government regulator says there’s a 50/50 chance of a Victorian coal mine becoming insolvent and leaving costly rehabilitation work to be done at the expense of Victorian taxpayers.

7. At the stroke of a pen, an area the size of the nearby town of Traralgon was permanently fenced off from the public.

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.

8. There are no clear objectives or criteria for mine rehabilitation.

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.


Want more? Click here to read our policy report on mine rehabilitation in the Latrobe Valley Preventing the Preventable [October 2014]