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