About a week into the catastrophic Hazelwood mine fire of early 2014, some surprising information emerged. The parts of the mine that weren’t catching on fire were those areas that had been rehabilitated.
It made sense: coal covered by soil is much less likely to burn than coal exposed to the air. But we could never have guessed that this information would lead to a two-year campaign, and a stunning announcement from the Victorian Premier in April 2016.
Mine rehabilitation, at its most basic, is repairing the damage done by mining. It could mean returning the land to something approximating its original state, or it could mean converting the big hole in the ground into something else – ideally something safe, stable and beneficial to the community around it (more on that later).
At the first Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry in June 2014, Environment Victoria was given “leave to appear”, meaning our legal team could cross-examine witnesses. We pressed for information about how mine rehab could prevent fires, and all the experts agreed it had a lot of potential. The Resources department also conceded that rehab works would be quite costly – much more than the meagre $15 million rehabilitation bonds held by the government for each mine. Frustratingly, the Inquiry made no specific recommendations to improve or speed up rehabilitation efforts at Hazelwood.
Voices of the Valley is a community group that emerged during the fire – a loud and important voice saying “we won’t be swept under the carpet”. We helped them organise a community meeting to discuss the recommendations that were in the Inquiry’s report as well as the recommendations that should have been in the report. Two clear priorities emerged: people were very concerned about what the fire would mean for their health, and people wanted to see more rehabilitation to ensure no fire like this could ever happen again.
Inspired by this community support for mine rehab, we did some more research and discovered that rehab is not only a great way to prevent fires, but it also helps reduce air pollution. Limiting the exposed coal also limits how much toxic dust can be blown into the air.
On top of that, rehab is labour-intensive – based on US government figures, it could create over 400 long-term jobs in the Latrobe Valley.
Extrapolating figures from Queensland, we estimated that each mine in the Latrobe Valley might cost around $200 million to rehabilitate properly. With only a $15 million bond from each mine operator, the state government was exposing Victorian taxpayers to a significant financial risk if the mine owners walked away.
But what did people in the La Trobe Valley – those living closest to these mines – think about rehabilitation? To find out, we commissioned a phone survey and learned that almost everyone wanted mine rehab to happen faster. Intriguingly, 57 percent also said they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate with strong rehab policies. With the 2014 state election around the corner, this was a massive opportunity.
So we assessed each local candidate’s policies on rehab and ran ads in local paper the Latrobe Valley Express to highlight where candidates stood on the issue. A week before the election, the Victorian Labor Party announced it would re-open the Inquiry to look at both health and rehab issues.
After being elected, the Andrews Government expanded the scope of the Inquiry to encompass all three coal mines in the Valley, not just Hazelwood.
In 2015 we ran a community workshop in Morwell, asking people what they think of existing rehab plans (which propose filling the mine pits with water), and what they think good rehab should achieve. This was a really positive discussion, with those who came along starting to imagine a future for the Latrobe Valley when there are no more coal mines.
In our submission to the second Hazelwood Inquiry, we wanted three things:
At the Inquiry into mine rehab, again we appeared with our legal team – we were the only other party to proceedings besides the mine operators and the state government. In other words, we were the only group representing the environment and community!
The final report and recommendations on mine rehab shows just how crucial our participation was: many of the recommendations are precisely what we had been pushing for. Hearing Premier Andrews accept all the recommendations the following day was a tremendous moment.
We now know that bonds will be increased significantly, that laws will be strengthened, and that an independent authority to oversee rehab planning will be established. All this should ensure that the miners who have profited from digging a very large hole in the ground will be held responsible for cleaning it up. Exactly how it should be.
Mine rehabilitation is a complex business, so there won’t be easy answers or quick fixes. But at least now we’re on the right path.
Thanks to all of our supporters who have backed our efforts to hold coal miners to account for the environmental damage they cause and the public risks they’ve created. You did this. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved together.