Blog | 28th Jul, 2022

Why there's no just transition without cleaning up Hazelwood coal mine

Understanding Victoria’s biggest mine rehabilitation project

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Decades of brown coal mining to power Victoria has left the Latrobe Valley with enormous mine pits and toxic coal ash contaminating the land and groundwater. As our state moves away from coal, the companies that profited off this damage must be accountable for cleaning it up.

Rehabilitation of these sites is a critical part of a just transition to clean energy that looks after the community and the environment.

An image of Hazelwood mine superimposed (to scale) over the city of Melbourne, shows the mine pit is the same size as Melbourne’s CBD.

The current proposal to rehabilitate Hazelwood mine is to flood the mine pit with river water and would require more water than all of Sydney Harbour. This could have serious consequences for the Latrobe River system, Aboriginal cultural heritage and our internationally recognised Gippsland Lakes.

If the plan to divert Morwell river through the mine goes ahead and toxic coal pollution is allowed to flow into our rivers, it could have terrible impacts for the health of our communities, rivers, lakes and wetlands. The project could also set a dangerous precedent on what is acceptable for the remaining mines in the Latrobe Valley.

Thanks to the work of local environmental and community groups, the project now has to go through an Environment Effects Statement (EES). This is the most thorough environmental assessment we have in Victoria and provides an important opportunity for the community to voice their concerns.

It will take all of us, speaking up, to get the mine cleaned up properly and safely – but it is vital to secure a healthy future in the Latrobe Valley as we transition away from polluting fossil fuels.

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Learn more:

  1. Why do we need to rehabilitate Hazelwood mine?
  2. What do we know about ENGIE’S proposal for rehabilitation?
  3. What’s an Environment Effects Statement or EES?
  4. How will the Hazelwood EES work?
  5. How can I get involved?

1. Why do we need a plan to rehabilitate Hazelwood mine?

The Hazelwood mine is one of the 3 large coal mines in the Latrobe Valley. It is the only one which is no longer mining coal and is therefore the first to go through the process of closure and rehabilitation.

Click to read more about the scale and significance of this rehabilitation project

Owned by French company ENGIE, the Hazelwood mine closed in 2017 after a history of WorkSafe notices and the devastating 2014 mine fire which burnt for 45 days and covered the homes of over 15,000 people in toxic ash.

It’s important that ENGIE’s rehabilitation of Hazelwood mine delivers a safe and stable site, and ensures the community won’t be burdened with further clean-up or impacted by toxic contamination in the decades to come.

Cleaning up the old Hazelwood mine is a significant challenge because rehabilitating coal mines of this size and geological makeup is largely untested.

In fact, a senior public official admitted that mine rehabilitation here in the Latrobe Valley is, to quote, “one giant experiment.”

It will also set an important precedent for the remaining mines in the Latrobe Valley, especially when it comes to water. Filling up just Hazelwood will take the same amount of water as Sydney Harbor — and then some more. More water will also be needed to top it up every year, to account for water lost through evaporation.

Imagine then if all three mine operators try to rehabilitate their old mine pits by filling them up with water. It could put an unbelievable strain on the local river system, which is already under stress, and this situation will be exacerbated as our climate gets hotter and drier climate.

You can learn more about the importance of water in this podcast episode from Action Network volunteers Josie and Steph >>

2. What do we know about ENGIE’S proposal for rehabilitation?

ENGIE’s rehabilitation plans involve diverting billions of litres of river water into the old Hazelwood mine pit to turn it into an artificial lake. We don’t yet know all the risks associated with this plan – which is why a thorough environmental assessment is so important.

Click to read what we do know about ENGIE’s plans

There’s a lot that we don’t know about ENGIE’s rehabilitation plans because there’s not a lot of publicly available information. Here’s what we do know from the documents available to us:

  • ENGIE plans to turn Hazelwood mine pit into an artificial lake using river water and has no plans to investigate alternative sources of water.
  • ENGIE is proposing to divert the Morwell River into the mine void and out the other side, which currently flows on through the Yallourn mine.
  • ENGIE’s proposal involves flooding the enormous coal ash dam inside the coal mine with water, which risks toxic coal ash flowing into our river system.
  • ENGIE doesn’t plan to look at the big picture, even though this is just the first of three massive coal mines in the Valley to be cleaned up and the cumulative impacts of rehabilitation will be enormous and could threaten the health of our rivers and wetlands for decades to come.

Knowing that mine rehabilitation will have far-reaching impacts for the region, Latrobe Valley community groups, including Friends of Latrobe Water (FLoW) led calls for this proposal to undergo an Environment Effects Statement (EES) to ensure the impacts of rehabilitation are understood – and undergo proper scrutiny.

Earlier this year, these community concerns were acknowledged, with Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne announcing that the Hazelwood mine rehabilitation project would have to undergo an EES. Read more about the announcement here >>

3. What’s an Environment Effects Statement or EES?

An EES is a report, with technical studies and expert reports attached. It is the strictest environmental assessment we have in Victoria and the best opportunity to make sure the project’s environmental risks are properly scrutinised.

Click to learn more about the EES

To create the EES, ENGIE must investigate the likely environmental impacts of its proposal through technical studies, investigations and assessments. The EES will determine how any environmental damage might be avoided, minimised or managed, for example by looking at alternative options within the project.

The EES will be prepared in relation to the specific project that ENGIE has proposed for the Hazelwood rehabilitation – turning the mine pit into an artificial lake. But we know that the solution that’s best for ENGIE (e.g. is the cheapest and easiest) may not be best for the community and environment. That’s why we’re asking that ENGIE also be required to evaluate alternative rehabilitation options as part of this EES.

It’s a long process, which can take years. But it’s a powerful one.

The EES process ensures information that might otherwise be secret, is made public, and that community voices are heard. There are opportunities for all of us to get involved and shape the process along the way, including one coming up very soon. 

Find out how you can get involved

4. How will the Hazelwood EES work?

The EES process has four stages: scoping to determine what ENGIE will be required to investigate and report on, ENGIE’s preparation of the EES, public review and finally the Minister’s assessment.

Click to read about the different stages of the EES

Stage 1: Scoping

ENGIE will first provide information to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. The Department and a Technical Reference Group will then prepare ‘scoping requirements’ which outline what ENGIE will be required to investigate and report on.

For example, ENGIE may be required to investigate what impact their proposal will have on the Gippsland Lakes or undertake a study assessing the stability of the mine void.

After the Department and Technical Reference Group have finished drafting the scoping requirements document, it’s made available for public comment for 15 business days. This is an important opportunity for all of us to have our say on what the EES should cover!

The Planning Minister will then consider public feedback and issue the final version of the scoping requirements.

Stage 2: Preparation of the EES

ENGIE will spend months preparing the EES. They will engage experts and consultants to conduct the studies and assessments outlined in the scoping requirements – with oversight from the of Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning Department and the Technical Reference Group. This is the stage that takes the longest.

Stage 3: Public Review

This stage offers another important opportunity for community involvement. After the EES has been prepared by ENGIE, the public will have 30-40 business days to respond, by making a submission to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Public inquiries are held in relation to some EES projects, and there will most likely be an Inquiry for the Hazelwood rehab EES. This will mean that community members who make submissions can speak and present evidence at the Inquiry.

Stage 4: Minister’s assessment

The Inquiry report, the EES and any submissions will be considered by the Planning Minister. The Minister will decide whether the project has an acceptable level of environmental impact and whether any major modifications or further investigations are required to make the environmental impact acceptable.

The Minister’s assessment informs the decision-makers responsible for granting approvals for the project to proceed, for example the Water Minister or the Environmental Protection Authority. All these decision-makers are required to take the Minister’s assessment into account.

Read more about the EES process in this guide from our friends at Environmental Justice Australia >>

5. What should be included in the EES?

To ensure the best outcome for the local community and environment, there are a number of key issues that need to be addressed in the EES.

Click to read more about the issues the EES needs to address

Here are some of the issues we think the EES must address:

  • Water sources. An assessment of alternative water sources that don’t involve diverting billions of litres of water from the Latrobe River system, including desalinised water and recycled water.
  • Toxic Coal Ash. An assessment of the environmental impacts of flooding the 35 hectare coal ash pit inside the mine void and an investigation into alternatives. Coal ash contains heavy metals and toxins and adding water to the site that then flows into the river could have devastating impacts for our communities, rivers, lakes and wetlands.
  • First Nations. Engie’s proposal could have significant impacts on First Nations people and cultural heritage. Proper, meaningful consultation and investigation should be included as a requirement of the EES.
  • Cumulative impacts on Morwell River. We know that it will take an enormous amount of water to offset evaporation from a pit lake each year, and the same plan has been proposed to rehabilitate the other two coal mines in the Valley. As the Morwell River runs past Hazelwood, and through Yallourn coal mine, the cumulative impact of those two rehabilitations proposals should be assessed.
  • Regional impacts. ENGIE’s publicly available documents indicate that they don’t intend to assess their proposal from a regional perspective. But an EES should consider other proposed projects that could impact on the same environmental resources, in this case, the Latrobe River system and the Gippsland Lakes. ENGIE should be required to consider the impact of its proposal in combination with the rehabilitation proposals for Yallourn and Loy Yang coal mines.
  • Analysis of rehabilitation options. We know that the most economically viable rehab method for mine operators won’t necessarily be the best option for the community. So far, the community don’t know what other options ENGIE have considered for rehabilitation of Hazelwood, and why ENGIE have ruled them out. The Department has the power to ensure that an options analysis is part of this EES.

We’ll know more about what is included once the scoping documents are released, and we’ll let you know how to provide feedback on what is missing.

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6. How can I get involved?

We’re working alongside a number of local groups to make sure the mine is cleaned up properly and safely. But it will take all of us speaking up!

Click to find out how you can help

Together with local groups like Friends of Latrobe Water (FLoW), Great Latrobe Park, Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC), Latrobe River Irrigators, the Concerned Waterways Alliance and others, we’re advocating for a thorough EES process.

There will be a number of opportunities to have your say throughout the EES, including action you can take now:

  • Once the scoping requirements are made public you’ll have an opportunity to provide feedback on what is missing. The deadline for this is 10 May. Find out how you can make a submission here >>
  • Once the EES is made public the community will have 30 days to provide feedback that will be considered by the Planning Minister in their final decision.

We know from experience how powerful a collective community voice can be – just look at the amazing achievements of the Westernport Bay community stopping a dirty gas import terminal for the Bay!

This is our chance to push for a thorough, transparent, and fair EES that will result in the best outcome for the community and environment! Sign up below to stay in the loop and stand with the Latrobe Valley for a bright future beyond coal.

Header image: Benji Doodle

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