Blog | 25th Sep, 2022

A just transition starts with properly cleaning up coal mines

The Victorian government has proposed new rules that coal mine operators will need to follow to clean up closed mine sites. But do these rules benefit mine owners or the community?

UPDATE — 4 October, 2022

Victorian government makes improvements to Declared Mine Rehabilitation Regulations

After submissions from the local community and Victorians across the state, the Victorian government has now improved the regulations which govern how declared coal mines in Victoria will be rehabilitated.

They will set the standard for the future rehabilitation of all the Latrobe Valley coal mines. While there's still a long road ahead to ensure Victoria’s closing coal mines are rehabilitated properly, it's excellent to see big improvements for community consultation, transparency and accountability.

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If there’s one moment that shows just how important mine rehabilitation is for the Latrobe Valley, it’s the 2014 fire that broke out at Hazelwood coal mine.

The mine fire burnt for 45 days. It was one of the worst pollution events in Victoria’s history, blanketing 15,000 people in Morwell and surrounding towns of the Valley with toxic smoke and coal ash. The devastating impacts are still being felt as researchers continue to uncover the damage done to people’s physical and mental health.

But the aftermath of the disaster also provided shocking evidence of how poorly the mine operator, ENGIE (formerly GDF Suez), had managed old sections of the site and how this had contributed to the fire. The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry found the part of the mine that caught fire hadn’t been rehabilitated in line with the mine operator’s own rehabilitation plan, or complied with Victoria’s laws at the time. Importantly, the inquiry found that rehabilitation (i.e. repairing damage to the land caused by mining) was the best way to prevent coal mines from catching fire in the future. It was a wake-up call for the community and government that better regulation was needed to prevent a similar disaster happening again. Read more here >>

Fast forward eight years, and we’re now at a critical juncture. Thanks to a huge, sustained community campaign, the Victorian government has finally proposed new regulations for coal mine rehabilitation. These draft regulations lay out how coal mine operators must clean up mine sites after they close and sets the standard for the future rehabilitation of all Victoria’s coal mines.

For the health of the Latrobe Valley community, its nature and waterways, we need to get these regulations right. But what the government has so far put forward is nowhere near strong enough and raises worrying questions about transparency and accountability.

The first problem is that the draft regulations would let the coal mine operators themselves decide whether a site had been appropriately rehabilitated before they walked away. The government isn’t planning on imposing any key criteria that mine operators would have to comply with, which means coal mine operators would essentially be able to write their own rules. If there aren’t strict standards in place, what’s to stop coal mine operators cutting corners to save money and time? In this situation, the community and environment would lose out.

Another big problem is there would no legal requirement for mine operators to make their plans public or ensure that they are evidence-based.

The brown coal mines in the Latrobe Valley are huge, complex sites. There are very few cases in Australia or overseas where rehabilitation at this scale has been tested – so much so that a senior public official has admitted it is “one big experiment” in the Valley. Given this and the serious failings exposed by the 2014 mine fire, the community deserves to know how mine operators plan to clean up the mess they have left behind and that this is grounded in science. This level of public scrutiny should be the bare minimum.

Finally, mine operators would have no legal obligation to consider the concerns of the community in their rehabilitation plans. People in the Latrobe Valley will be left with the legacy of these holes and the pollution that comes with them, but these rules would see them shut out of the consultation process.

Together with Environmental Justice Australia, we’ve made a submission to the Victorian government providing 13 key recommendations that address the serious shortcomings in the draft regulations. We’re calling for transparency, accountability and deep community engagement. Ultimately, we’re calling for stronger regulations that stand up for the interests of the local community and environment – not those of the big polluters responsible for creating the mess in the first place. Download the full submission here >>

Eight years on from the Hazelwood mine fire, this is our chance to get rehab right and set the Latrobe Valley up for a healthier future.

This article was first published in Issue 38 of Environment Victoria News. Read it here >>

Hazelwood rehab plans first big test 

The brown coal mine that fuelled Hazelwood coal power station is bigger than Melbourne’s CBD. Cleaning it up will be the largest rehabilitation project Victoria has ever seen.

In a big win for the community, coal mine owner ENGIE’s plans to flood the site with billions of litres of valuable river water is required to undergo a full Environment Effects Statement (EES). This process will kick off when the Victorian government releases its scoping requirements, which outline what ENGIE will be required to investigate and report on in the EES. We’re expecting this to be released at any moment!

Once the requirements are released, there are 15 days for the public to comment – which is a key chance for us to have our voices heard. For more information and to find out how you can get involved, visit our FAQ here >>

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