Premier Daniel Andrews has denied any knowledge of informal discussions probing relocation options for Morwell.
The Express reported details of these discussions – held in the wake of the Hazelwood mine fire – on its front page last Monday.
The story also revealed a ‘back of the envelope’ costing by engineering firm GHD, as requested by a State Government contact, pricing Morwell’s relocation to Churchill and the redirection of the freeway and railway line at $4 billion.
Mr Andrews also denied knowledge of this costing.
“I’m going to be very clear with the people of Morwell. Morwell is here to stay and so is our government’s support for Morwell,” Mr Andrews said during a visit to the town on Friday.
When asked whether the discussions or the report by GHD could have occurred at a bureaucratic level, without his knowledge, Mr Andrews said “there’s no doubt that people could have talked about those things”.
“The government certainly was not involved in those discussions and I want to be very clear with you that we’re not moving Morwell,” Mr Andrews said.
The government has previously stated there “had not been any talks” about moving any part of Morwell within the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
When asked what he believed the solution to Morwell’s proximity to the Hazelwood mine was, Mr Andrews cited investment in government agencies and equipment.
“We’re making a series of investments and decisions in accord with our commitment to the people of Morwell and I think all of those things will make it a safer mine and a safer local area,” Mr Andrews said.
“It’s about taking the precautions you know you must take and then in the event there is another incident, don’t abandon this local community.”
Mr Andrews said in the past six months, Hazelwood mine owner and operator GDF SUEZ had been “more than a good citizen”.
“There’s been significant works done there in terms of infrared camera modelling, sprinkler systems, a whole range of other safety measures that have been put in place.”
Latrobe City councillor for the ward that includes Morwell, Graeme Middlemiss was “astonished” by the revelations in The Express article.
“What gives so-called stakeholders and government officers the right to have had such discussions without consulting the people of Morwell?” Cr Middlemiss said.
He said he had asked Latrobe City for details of any council involvement and questioned why Morwell councillors were not included and whether the people of the town were consulted.
“Did anybody think of the likely effect on real estate values in Morwell if these discussions became public? Was anybody who actually had skin in the game involved?,” he said.
“If the local member, and Minister at the time, knew nothing about these discussions then the faceless state bureaucracy is out of control. It is time for the current Minister to clip some wings.
Cr Middlemiss said he believed any proximity problems such as fire risk and ground movement could be readily addressed by mine rehabilitation, as the area of the mine closest to the Morwell township was worked-out
He called for its immediate rehabilitation.
The reopened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry will later this year probe rehabilitation options available to the Latrobe Valley’s open cut mine network.
“As far as future coal reserves are concerned, there are billions of tonnes of brown coal that are readily available without any need to dig up Morwell,” Cr Middlemiss said.
In The Express last Monday, Latrobe City mayor Dale Harriman referred to “open and frank” discussions during the Hazelwood mine fire about the concept of a government buyout of Morwell’s properties south of the railway line and relocating them to the town’s north, but the idea was soon dismissed.
Cr Harriman last week said he was not mayor at the time of this discussion which was “not in a formal briefing setting” and in the context of the “worst case scenario” of fire getting into drains under the Princes Freeway and potentially under Morwell.
“It was a discussion that any councillor could have been there for,” Cr Harriman said.
“It was not in a formal briefing setting.”
Cr Harriman said there had been an update session on the mine fire at council headquarters with about 60 to 70 people in the room including bureaucrats, other councillors and emergency services.
He said following that, attendees broke into groups “as you do after a meeting” and the discussion took place in a group of about 10 people including State Government bureaucrats.
“It was a case of Melbourne-based bureaucrats trying to get their head around an issue they’d never been confronted with before,” Cr Harriman said.
GHD would like to correct claims published in the media about its work in Morwell.
“GHD confirms that we were never approached by the State Government to undertake any works in regards to Morwell’s relocation,” GHD manager-Victoria Dean McIntyre said.
“We apologise for causing any unnecessary anxiety for the local community.
“With an office in Traralgon and more than 50 people across Gippsland, we are committed to the community in which we live and work.”
Editor’s note: The Express stands by the original story published on Monday, 14 September which stated the GHD costing was requested by a State Government contact.