The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry is headed into its second week, with locals in the Latrobe Valley waiting with bated breath for the findings. The inquiry is looking at a fire in the Hazelwood open-cut coal mine, which burned for 45 days in February and March last year before finally being declared “safe”. Although the mine fire is thought to have been started by embers from a nearby bushfire, the month-and-a-half-long blaze at Hazelwood was not a natural disaster; it was a chronic industrial mishap of the most unnatural kind.

The inquiry was reopened by the Andrews government, after an inquiry by the previous Liberal government did not investigate whether the fire contributed to an increase of deaths in the region. Since the fire, locals in the Latrobe Valley, especially in Morwell, have campaigned for answers, believing that the fire had adverse health effects about which they weren’t properly warned.

Here’s a potted summary of the first week of public hearings:

  • All three brown coal mine owners in the Latrobe Valley — GDF Suez (Hazelwood), Energy Australia (Yallourn) and AGL (Loy Yang) — have licenses to keep operating for at least another decade. AGL Loy Yang is planning to keep operating until 2048.
  • In Paris on the weekend, the world’s leaders agreed that burning brown coal for at least another decade is not the best idea.
  • All three mine owners are planning to rehabilitate the mine sites by turning the empty mines into “pit lakes”. Matthew Collins QC, the lawyer for Energy Australia Yallourn, repeatedly referred to this “lake solution” using a range of unfortunate phrases, including “final approved lake solution”, “final lake solution”, “Yallourn final solution” and “the final solution“.
  • Collins’ inadvertently genocidal references were particularly ill-timed given that on the very same day, Wednesday, December 9, the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry released a report announcing that the 2014 Hazelwood coal mine fire did cause an increase in deaths — from people in the Latrobe Valley breathing in poisonous smoke and gases.
  • Turning a huge empty mine into a lake will take a very long time. The Loy Yang “lake solution” is predicted to take up to 85 years to fill. The Hazelwood “lake solution” is predicted to take “in the order of 500 years”.
  • It is not at all clear that there will be enough water to fill one or all of these mines on the predicted timeframes.
  • How much water will there be in the rivers of southern Australia in 500 years? It is not clear.
  • How will accelerating climate change affect overall demand for water in southern Australia in 500 years’ time? It is not clear.

Wicked problems

  • There has been little or no meaningful discussion between the three mine owners, the mine regulator (the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, aka DEDJTR), and the various water authorities, about where all this future-water is going to come from.
  • In short, there is no water security for these “lake solutions”.
  • Also, the acronym DEDJTR, when spoken aloud, sounds suspiciously like “deadshitter”.
  • There are no coherent plan Bs in place if the various “lake solutions” are not viable.
  • If left alone, an empty mine will slowly fill with groundwater runoff from surrounding land, since it is below the water table. If someone wants the empty mine to remain dry, they will need to pay to pump the water out of it “in perpetuity”.
  • That means “forever”.
  • Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley described the mine rehabilitation challenge facing the Latrobe Valley as a “wicked problem”.
  • The phrase “wicked problem” is not ’90s skater slang. Rather, it is an urban planning term for situations “of mind-bending complexity, characterised by ‘contradictory certitudes’ and thus defying elegant, consensual solutions”.
  • Latrobe Valley community leader Tracie Lund calls this “The Morwell Experiment”. “If you want to know the effects of privatisation on a community, 20 years after you do it, and if you want to know how to epically screw it up, look at Morwell,” Lund said.

Lake solutions

  • A “lake solution”, if done well, can be great for a community, for various reasons: tourism and recreation, and their associated economic benefits; water security; and flood mitigation (in the future, accelerating climate change will make flood events more frequent and more severe, and flood mitigation more necessary).
  • In the German region of Lusatia, about 150kms south of Berlin, there have been some excellent “lake solutions”. They do all the great things listed above, are mainly stable and mainly non-toxic. They even have custom-designed floating eco-houses on their new lakes.
  • The Lusatia “lake solution” was driven by the German government and cost 10 billion euros.
  • The German government expected the Lusatia lake project to cost 16 billion euros. They have been pleasantly surprised.
  • There is much more water in Germany’s rivers than in Australia’s rivers. All 52 German mine voids were filled within 25 years. Even so, according to Dr Friedrich von Bismarck, who works for Germany’s Joint-Governmental-Agency for Coal Mine Rehabilitation, “water availability was the key question”.
  • In the Latrobe Valley, the three mines aren’t owned by the Australian government any more. They are owned by three private companies, with three different corporate interests.
  • Blame privatisation, again, if you like.
  • The race for water security for these different “lake solutions” could well turn into a zero-sum game — particularly between Yallourn and Hazelwood, which will both need water from the Morwell River.
  • There is not very much water in the Morwell River.
  • The Yallourn mine is next to the Latrobe River, the region’s largest water flow. Hazelwood and Loy Yang are not.
  • A “Lake Yallourn” might provide some benefits to the region, including tourism and recreation, water security and flood mitigation.
  • “Lake Hazelwood” and “Lake Loy Yang”? Not so much.
  • 10 billion euros is a lot of money.
  • GDF Suez expects the rehabilitation of Hazelwood mine — the “Lake Hazelwood solution” — to cost $73 million. An independent consultant expects it to cost between $218 million and $332 million.
  • If a mine owner fails to rehabilitate their mine, they have to pay a rehabilitation bond to the Victorian government. At present, the rehabilitation bonds for the three Latrobe Valley mines are set at $15 million apiece.
  • Environment Victoria has expressed concern that “financially, it could make more sense for the company to sacrifice its bond and abandon the mine without carrying out rehabilitation works”. Author and planning expert David Langmore expressed a similar opinion: “The level of the bonds [is] so low that it almost invite[s] the holders of those bonds to walk away from their responsibilities. $15 million is a flea bite, quite frankly.”
  • The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry is investigating the rehabilitation bond question today.
  • “The Morwell Experiment” continues.
  • Watch this space.