Hazelwood is not a name you associate with horror folklore, however it is the name of one of the world’s most dirtiest, polluting coal fuelled power plants in Victoria, which sadly we rely on at a state and national level for our energy production. This is a true modern day horror tale in light of climate change and the need to produce energy from cleaner and greener sources. We explore the history of Hazelwood, its environmental impacts and the recent mine fire, which caused significant problems for the Government and the local community.
The Hazelwood power station is a brown coal fuelled power station located in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, Australia approximately 150km east of Melbourne. Opened in 1971 it is jointly owned by two large energy corporations: GDF SUEZ Australian Energy (72 per cent) and Mitsui & Co Ltd (28%). The power station is fuelled with up to 18 million tonnes of coal each year from the Hazelwood mine. (1) (2). It supplies between 20 and 25 per cent of Victoria’s energy requirements and 5.4 per cent of Australia’s energy demand. It uses a gigantic 27 billion litres of water a year. That’s almost as much water as the whole of Melbourne uses in a month, which is a valid reflection of the poor environmental record of this plant (3).
Hazelwood was set to be shut by the Victorian Government in 2005, however the mine’s license was renewed until 2030 in what environmentalists rightly called a ‘tragic decision’, allowing access to 43 million tonnes of brown coal deposits in a realignment of Hazelwood’s mining license boundaries (1)(4). The agreement did require Hazelwood to reduce their estimated emissions by 34 million tonnes and cap its total greenhouse output at 445 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over its life. Investment in renewable energy will allow the mine to operate within its cap and extend its life (1).
Despite this agreement to improve the environmental measures of the mine the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) states Hazelwood is one of the most polluting of all major power stations in industrialised countries. This disastrous result means Australia is directly contributing to climate change through increase greenhouse gas emissions, and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (5).
The mine has continued polluting and damaging our environment since its opening and subsequent license renewal in 2005. However it came to the forefront of the media and public in February 9, 2014 after a fire occurred in the Hazelwood mine resulting from embers from a nearby bushfire. It burnt for 45 consecutive days sending heavy smoke and ash over surrounding towns in the Latrobe Valley, mainly the township of Morwell with a population of approximately 14,000 (6). An increased in deaths was reported across the Latrobe Valley during and after the fire with many residents also suffering health concerns with complaints of sore eyes, respiration and breathing problem and headaches.
‘…Hazelwood is one of the most polluting of all major power stations in industrialised countries. This disastrous result means Australia is directly contributing to climate change through increase greenhouse gas emissions, and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere’
An enquiry was launched by the Victorian Government to determine the cause, impacts and recommendations of the fire to prevent such a tragedy occurring again (7). The enquiry has determined there was high chance the mine fire contributed to the increase in deaths and health problems suffered by residents (8).Whilst the cause of the mine fire was due to a nearby bushfire’s embers spreading to the open cut coal mine, the issue is that due to the abundance of coal stores this resulted in the formation of very hazardous smoke and ash adversely effecting residents. Had Hazelwood been a clean energy plant and the same bushfire had fronted the plant, it is likely the damage to the environment and people’s health would have been far less severe. Sadly, not willing to admit corporate responsibility GDF Mine owner GDF Suez highlighted two words in the enquiry’s report — no “absolute proof” (concerning the link between the fire and the adverse health residents of the Latrobe Valley residents) (9).
Whilst Australia still cannot decide on an emissions trading or carbon capture scheme and the environmental concerns Australia facing seems to be off the political and public agenda for the moment, it sadly appears this heavily polluting plant will retain its license. The government is reluctant to close the plant due to the easily accessed mass reserves of coal for hundreds of years and our reliance on it as an energy source both within Victoria and Australia, as we correctly do obtain a majority of our energy from Hazelwood. And despite too of course the recent public health crisis resulting from the mine fire.
So of course to shut it down means we have to replace it with something else right? Many environmental groups advocate how Hazelwood can be transitioned into a clean, green energy production site. Environment Victoria states within two years using a combination of renewable energy, energy efficiency and as a transition gas and fuel we can cut greenhouse gases, create new jobs and shut Hazelwood (3). Many other organisations also support this transition including Alternative Technology Association, Environment Victoria, Friends of the Earth, Moreland Energy Foundation Ltd, Victorian Climate Action Centre and Yarra Climate Action Network (10).
Shutting Hazelwood ultimately makes so much sense from an environmental, economic, social and ethical perspective. It is abhorrent we are operating one of the most polluting power plant in the world in Australia while the rest of the world transitions to greener and cleaner energy. We must keep pressuring and rallying the government to close this antiquated giant and move our energy sources into the progressive 21st century.
Words by Simon Chitre