The Latrobe Valley is no stranger to change and transition. Since time immemorial the area has been home to the Brayakaulung people of the Gunaikurnai nation. In the 1880s the first brown-coal miners arrived as early starters to the coal industry that scaled up in the early 20th century.
Coal mining and power generation became long-term industry bedrocks of the region, but the next century will be very different to the last, as Victoria and the world transition beyond coal.
During the 1990s the privatisation of the power industry led to thousands of job losses and business closures, plummeting house prices and an exodus of population.
Fast forward to 2022, and the focus now is on cleaning up the site of the former power station in a sustainable and transparent way – a mammoth task that could also be a job generator for the local community if done properly.
The shift away from coal is crucial to protect our climate, but it is equally important to ensure a thriving and sustainable future for the valley as it moves beyond coal. History shows that engaged, orderly planning is essential to ensure that the negative impacts of transition are minimised, and that communities can benefit from it.
Australia’s coal communities now overwhelmingly support the clean-energy transition, but they want governments to step up and help workers and communities, as well as ensure coal companies clean up old power stations and mining sites.
According to YouGov polling released this week, 90 per cent of respondents in the Latrobe Valley agreed that the state government should ensure power station operators are responsible for cleaning up former power stations like Hazelwood so that they are safe and can be used for other purposes.
For more than five years, the Latrobe Valley community has anxiously waited for clarity on the fate of the Hazelwood mine pit. Operator Engie plans to flood the pit, turning it into an artificial lake by using natural water sources including groundwater.
On Wednesday, Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the Hazelwood Mine Rehabilitation Project would undergo the Environmental Effects Statement process.
However, it is critical this process includes a thorough assessment of the impacts Engie’s proposal would have not only on the health of the Latrobe River system and the Ramsar-listed Gippsland Lakes, but also on the Latrobe Valley community, who suffer the deadly health impacts of toxic pollution from coal mines and coal-fired power stations.
The reality is that cleaning up the former Hazelwood site would require a mammoth amount of water – more water than is in Sydney Harbour – and that’s just one of three mega-mines in the valley. If all are filled with water from the river system, that will leave less for the local environment, as well as reduce water availability for other key industries such as agriculture.
Mine operators will need to look at alternative sources of water, such as recycled water or desalination, or they might need to change plans and prepare for options that don’t involve water.
One thing is certain: the Latrobe Valley community doesn’t need to be left with flammable holes in the ground surrounded by cyclone fences; nor does it need its precious water supplies to be depleted cleaning up the toxic legacy of former power plants. We need to do better.
Pretending the energy transition is going to take longer than predicted or that there won’t be any additional coal closures this decade helps no one. Private energy companies being dishonest to workers and the community helps no one. Instead, properly managing a transition well is of critical importance.
In 2016, after the catastrophic mine fire and Engie’s sudden closure of the Hazelwood power station, the Andrews government realised a co-ordinated plan to support the region was necessary and established the Latrobe Valley Authority, but this funding runs out in June.
This work is only just beginning, and it is time to give the Latrobe Valley Authority a long-term mandate and secure funding so it can complete the job working closely with local workers, Indigenous groups and the broad community.
The Latrobe Valley deserves nothing less.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Age. You can read the original article here >>