This week the iconic smokestacks came down at the Hazelwood power station as part of the decommissioning process. Love it or loathe it, the Hazelwood power station is an important part of Victoria’s power-generating history.
But Hazelwood was also the source of huge amounts of pollution and waste generated as a result of combusting coal. Part of this waste is the enormous ash dumps where all the ash generated over several decades has been left to sit in unlined landfills on the premises. As our work on toxic coal ash shows, inadequate construction and management of coal ash dumps can and does lead to significant environmental contamination.
There is, deservedly, a lot of attention on the rehabilitation of the Hazelwood mine. However, the rehabilitation and decommissioning of the power station site itself, overseen by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), has received far less attention.
Friends of Latrobe Water
Our client, Friends of Latrobe Water (FLoW), is concerned about the long-term impacts of failure to ensure that sources of contamination at the Latrobe Valley power stations will have on water quality. FLoW is an unincorporated community group formed for the purposes of advocating for the protection of the Latrobe Valley’s water sources and safeguarding the protection of the Gippsland Lakes from brown coal activities, including mine rehabilitation and coal ash contamination.
After we received an analysis by geologist and hydrogeologist Dr Steven Campbell (with help from our friends at Earthjustice), FLoW wanted to make sure that the EPA was fully investigating the contamination from the Hazelwood ash dumps and that the owners were held to account for any contamination occurring.
Dr Campbell analysed the most recent environmental audit (EA) report for the Hazelwood ash dams, conducted in 2017, and the EPA’s Best Practice Environmental Management Guidelines for landfill management. Coal ash dams are regulated as landfill in Victoria. Under its licence, Hazelwood Power Partners, the joint owners of the Hazelwood power station, are required to engage an environmental auditor to undertake an EA every two years. The EAs assess the risk of harm that is, or is likely to, arise as a result of the landfill operations. The EPA does not review EAs, and only investigates any matters brought to its attention that have been identified through the EA process. Otherwise, it is up to Hazelwood to self-report contamination or any breach of its licence conditions to the EPA when the contamination occurs and in its annual performance statement.
In his analysis, Dr Campbell found what appears to be inconsistencies in the guidelines issued by EPA to appropriately construct and managed landfill sites, and potential contamination resulting from inadequately constructed coal ash dams at Hazelwood. FLoW engaged us to write to the EPA requesting that a comprehensive investigation be undertaken to determine the extent and severity of the potential contamination from the ash dams.
Investigation as a matter of priority
EPA was convinced of FLoW’s request for investigation based on Dr Campbell’s analysis. The EPA’s Major Investigations Unit will be undertaking the investigation, which the EPA has identified as a matter of priority.
It is fundamental that the ash dams at Hazelwood, and all power stations, are comprehensively remediated to ensure that ground and surface water is protected well after the site is rehabilitated and closed forever. The Latrobe Valley community deserves to be left with a comprehensively rehabilitated and safe environment after generating Victoria’s power for nearly 100 years. The EPA’s investigation will hopefully be a step in the right direction to see that Hazelwood’s ash dams are rehabilitated thoroughly to protect water and community well into the future.