Two weeks ago, Victoria’s Energy Minister stood in front of TV cameras and declared a state-wide ‘energy emergency’. Recent heavy storms had pelted the Latrobe Valley and we were told floodwaters could cause the walls of the Morwell River Diversion, that runs through the Yallourn mine, to collapse. Coal could not be mined, energy supply was at stake, and the government was taking the extraordinary step of suspending the usual legal checks and balances so the mine operator, EnergyAustralia, could undertake urgent repair work. 

For those of us who live in the Latrobe Valley or follow the history of the Yallourn mine, this is hardly reassuring. Despite being an award-winning feat of engineering, the Morwell River diversion failed in June 2012, filling the mine pit with up to 60 billion litres of water. It took two years and $150 million to repair. At the time, mine owner TruEnergy also released scant details, and the true impact of the disaster was only made clear to the public much later. 

So what do we know? We know from the government that emergency provisions under the Electricity Industry Act 2000 and Water Act 1989 have been initiated, and the Acting Minister for Water Richard Wynne has directed Gippsland and Southern Rural Water Corporation to make a decision on licence and works applications from EnergyAustralia. 

We know that the EPA has provided emergency discharge licences to both Yallourn and Hazelwood to discharge huge quantities of water in the Latrobe River.  

What we still don’t know, however, is what the long-term options are to ensure that both the environment is protected and that electricity generation can be secured at Yallourn until 2028 – or until Victoria’s renewable energy capacity is increased so that Yallourn is no longer required.  

These emergency directives make it clear that the water corporation does not have to take into consideration the usual legal checks and balances in their decision-making process regarding the longer-term plans for the Morwell and Latrobe Rivers. This means they neither have to consider any adverse effects to the environment, like pollution or contamination – or how the decision to divert a river will affect other water users, such as farmers downstream. 

One option apparently on the table is diverting the river into the now unused Hazelwood mine. Such a plan is under consideration as part of mine’s rehabilitation, but this emergency measure could sidestep any proper regulatory or community consultation. Current policies, such as that water from the natural environment cannot be used for the purposes of mine rehabilitation, would not apply. The Latrobe Valley Regional Rehabilitation Strategy may not apply either. 

Triggering the emergency provisions of not one but two Acts is significant. Victorians, and certainly the Latrobe Valley and Gippsland community, have every right to be anxious and angry at the obscene lack of transparency regarding the situation at Yallourn and Hazelwood right now. 

Of course, certain otherwise undesirable measures must be made available to industry and governments to undertake works in emergency circumstances. But it cannot come at the expense of everything else. There are too many questions about how this has happened again and why EnergyAustralia has been afforded such extraordinary measures given this event was entirely foreseeable. 

Questions such as were lessons learned from the previous mine wall collapse and flooding of Yallourn? Did the regulator allow mining too close to the embankment? How complicit is EnergyAustralia in this failure? What will be the longer-term impacts of decisions made right now, behind closed doors, in the absence of the law being appropriately applied? 

Only independent judicial scrutiny can dig deeper into the underlying causes and systemic failures, and answer these types of questions. Victoria needs an inquiry into how this happened. If we cannot have appropriate checks and balances in place now, then we can at least make sure there’s a proper investigation later to prevent similar incidents happening in the future.