Environment groups and the Latrobe Valley community are deeply concerned by significant flaws in proposed mine rehabilitation rules just released by the Victorian government.
Draft regulations to amend the existing Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) (Mineral Industries) Regulations 2019 are meant to “set clear standards” to guide mine rehabilitation for all of Victoria’s coal mines.
However, lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia and community groups Friends of Latrobe Valley Water and Environment Victoria have significant concerns that these proposed regulations are too weak to protect the health of local communities and the environment.
The proposed regulations would allow mine operators themselves to set the standards of what is acceptable rehabilitation.
Operators would have no legal requirement to make their rehabilitation plans public, nor ensure they are evidence-based – which raises serious issues for transparency and accountability.
Public consultation will be outsourced to mine operators – and the government isn’t required to consider public submissions as part of their decision. There’s also no process for independent expert review before the government approves a plan.
The public have until 17 August to make a submission and this is an important opportunity to ensure the community and Traditional Owners are involved in the development of mine rehabilitation plans.
Background to the regulations
These new rules should be a key piece in the legal framework designed to address the disastrous failures exposed by the Hazelwood mine fire. In 2014, the Hazelwood mine fire burned for 45 days, blanketing the surrounding area in toxic smoke. It remains the worst air pollution disaster in Victoria’s history.
The 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry that followed concluded that both mine operator GDF Suez (as it then was) and multiple government agencies, including the Environment Protection Authority and Earth Resources Regulation (ERR), failed to appropriately oversee activities in the mine that contributed to the fire’s severity. In 2016 a subsequent inquiry into the fire found the ERR and the existing legislative framework weren’t getting positive outcomes for the community or the environment.
Environmental Justice Australia’s senior coal pollution lawyer Charley Brumby-Rendell said:
“As Victoria retires old coal fired power stations and closes mines, ensuring companies clean up before they leave is a top priority for the community,” said EJA’s senior coal pollution lawyer Charley Brumby-Rendell.
“With Engie proposing to flood the Hazelwood mine pit with water taken from flow-stressed river system, and more huge rehabilitation projects in the Valley to follow, it is critical to get the rules for mine rehab right. That’s why these new mine rebab rules are so important for the community and the environment, today and for generations to come.
“In their current form, the proposed regulations for Declared Mines do not deliver on the Government’s promise of more transparency and clarity for the Latrobe Valley community. Instead, the regulations leave crucial decisions in the hands of mine operators, without requiring the evidence or community consultation the public deserves.”
Bronya Lipski, Environment Victoria’s policy and advocacy manager said:
“Communities in the Latrobe Valley have powered our homes, offices, and schools across Victoria for decades. As Victoria’s coal mines close, mining operators need to be held responsible for cleaning up their mess, to ensure that the people who live nearby aren’t stuck with the toxic leftovers.
“The Hazelwood mine fire illustrated to all Victorians, but particularly the Latrobe Valley community, the disastrous consequences of poor regulation for mine rehabilitation. The Declared Mine Regulations are a crucial opportunity to get mine rehab right.
“The Latrobe Valley community has waited a long time for certainty on how and what mine rehabilitation will leave them with. Given the complexity of three enormous mine rehabilitation projects in their future, deep and transparent community engagement is required to ensure the community isn’t left with a legacy of contamination and environmental damage.”
Tracey Anton, secretary of Friends of Latrobe Water (FLoW) said:
“Our communities are continuing to see the same business-as-usual model that a 2020 audit found significant failings with.
“At the heart of the problem is Earth Resources Regulation’s dual role as the regulator and facilitator of the industry.
“This is exacerbated by the lack of independent expertise to assess rehabilitation plans and contributed to the disastrous Hazelwood mine fire.
“If the community is shut out of effective consultation, we have serious concerns that protection of the environment and public health risks will continue to be compromised.”