Filling each of the Latrobe Valley’s three mine voids with water to varying degrees will be the most viable rehabilitation option, in the view of counsel assisting the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry.
However, it submitted there are still complex questions to be answered about whether this option would be viable at the time the mines close, including whether each site could be made safe and stable, whether water quality can be ensured and whether the quantity of water needed can be sourced.
This was among the conclusions submitted by counsel assisting on Friday – the final day of hearings into mine rehabilitation.
It has submitted the Board of Inquiry should find that issues surrounding rehabilitation of the mines have been “neglected and ignored by the regulator and the mines”.
The submission stated significant research and coordination between interested parties and government departments was required before the pit lake concept could be confirmed to be viable.
Counsel assisting the Inquiry, Peter Rozen said evidence suggested this had been known for some time by the mines and government and although there had been some recent positive steps forward, the evidence demonstrated a tendency by the mines and the government to put consideration of these issues “off for another day”.
In discussing water sourcing, Mr Rozen said counsel assisting had concluded the failure over 20 years for this issue to be the subject of discussion between affected parties was “perhaps the most disturbing” evidence the board had heard.
“It reflects poorly on all concerned,” he said.
Mr Rozen said rehabilitating each mine was likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the present rehab bonds of $15 million for the Hazelwood and Loy Yang mines and $11.46 million for the Yallourn mine – intended to ensure the state does not end up bearing the cost of rehabilitation – “must be seen as manifestly inadequate”.
He said the failure by the regulator to review the bond levels in the 20 years since privatisation was an “egregious failure in regulation which must be addressed”.
Counsel assisting submitted the bond system would be more effective if the regulator conducted periodic reviews of the bond levels of the Valley’s coal mines.
It submitted solving the problems of water access, water quality and stability was fundamentally important and required reform of existing regulatory arrangements.
At present, the rehabilitation plan for all three operators is to transform their mines into a lake of some kind.
In a statement to The Express on Friday, an EnergyAustralia spokesperson said the company continued to progress its approved rehabilitation plan for the Yallourn mine, which involved creating an interconnected lake that would be accessible to the public and a “valuable resource for flood, drought and fire mitigation in the Latrobe Valley”.
Counsel assisting acknowledged this in its submission, but said the aim depended on whether the pit could or would be connected to the river system and whether the quality of water and stability of the structure would be sufficient to allow public access.
AGL Loy Yang’s new plans to not allow public access to its lake were criticised by counsel assisting for a lack of community consultation.
AGL Loy Yang general manager Steve Rieniets said in a statement, the company planned to engage with the community to explain why it had adopted a “precautionary approach” to public access until it believed the area was safe and stable, saying the decision took into account the safety and wellbeing of the local community.
Mr Rienets said the company supported a bond system that was fair and equitable for the mine operators and the state and a trust fund system set up by the company to assist with rehabilitation, should offset any revised bond.
He said the company accepted the availability of water for rehabilitation should be addressed, however at this stage it had not received any indication from authorities that it would not be able to use at least some of the water currently available to the site by way of bulk entitlements.
Mr Rienets said AGL Loy Yang was committed to progressively rehabilitating the mine in accordance with its approved work plan and activities would ramp up in the next five years.
GDF SUEZ submitted it had met its targets and milestones for progressive rehabilitation, set out in the 2009 work plan.
The company said it had substantial water entitlements under the groundwater licence and water services agreement with Gippsland Water and it estimated, based on recent modelling work, it would take approximately seven years for the pit to fill to the point of ‘stability’ and several more decades to reach its proposed final level.
It said the most likely feasible sources of water for filling the lake was to continue groundwater pumping, discharging water from the Hazelwood Cooling Pond, or redirecting rainfall from the pond catchment into the pit lake.
The company submitted that there was no evidence before the Board that the current bond level for the Hazelwood Mine was inadequate.
The Board of Inquiry is expected to deliver its report and recommendations on the mine rehabilitation portion of the inquiry on 15 March 2016.