Activists seize key time to stop Victorian coal exports

Issue 

A protest against using the Victorian port of Hastings for brown coal exports attracted 200 people on November 9, including locals and community members from across Gippsland.

Several coal export projects are seeking to use land at Hastings in Western Port, south-east of Melbourne, for a one-square-kilometre brown coal drying facility and port.

“We don't think brown coal should be exported out of Victoria at all, it's a very stupid idea,” protest organiser Karri Giles from Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council (WPPC) told Green Left Weekly. “We don't think people in Hastings would like to be exposed to the health risks of coal dust.

The WPPC is also concerned about expansion of any shipping in the shallow bay of Western Port because it would require dredging, which would pollute the bay. Giles said that the Port of Hastings Corporation have been given $110 million by the state government “to build a business case and environmental assessment” for expanding container shipping through the port.

“Western Port is quite shallow, dredging causes re-suspension of sediment, and the bay is already out of nitrogen balance,” Giles said. “It is highly valued for recreation and its inter-tidal ecosystem.” The bay is listed under the Ramsar convention as a wetland of international significance.

The protest also brought together residents from a number of communities threatened by coal projects in Gippsland. Chloe Aldenhoven from Friends of the Earth's Quit Coal campaign told Green Left Weekly that this included people from Boolarra, Gormandale, Mirboo North and McGauran's Beach, the site of another proposed coal port.

Aldenhoven said the export proposals “rely on the technology to dry brown coal, which hasn't happened anywhere in the world yet. There's a lot of pieces of the puzzle that need to be put together before exports are viable, so communities are getting informed and ready to face the threat.”

The state government has made large coal allocations to a range of companies, and is providing grants under the Advanced Lignite Demonstration Program (ALDP). Lignite is the geological term for brown coal.

The ALDP is a joint federal and state government initiative to provide assistance for “developing pre-commercial demonstration scale, coal upgrading processes for raw lignite”. Processing it for export is a key goal of companies involved. Unprocessed brown coal has been considered too dangerous to transport, as it tends to self-ignite when it dries out naturally.

A report published by Environment Victoria in October, Victoria's Coal Wannabes, said “none of the current crop of Victorian brown coal mining wannabes have any existing coal operations, let alone brown coal projects.” It said several companies are near insolvency.

“If it was up to financial markets,” the report said, “Victoria's brown coal would stay in the ground. However the provision of taxpayer-funded grants and allocations of billions of tonnes of coal provide the companies pursuing brown coal projects a lifeline.”

Given the tenuous financial state of the companies involved, and the lack of a proven technology for drying and safely transporting the coal, it might appear that community concern and protest is unnecessary.

However Mark Wakeham, campaigns director at Environment Victoria, told Green Left Weekly: “Communities should take it seriously, because the state and federal governments are so involved in trying to get projects off the ground, using taxpayers' funds and allocating free coal. If companies start getting cash and coal, and if investment goes into coal ports and infrastructure, at some point it will make the projects stack up.

“From the point of view of local communities, the time to stop projects is now, before the companies get the money.”

Regarding the viability of the technologies for safely drying the coal, Wakeham said: “All are tested in the lab and theoretically possible, it's just a question of economics. The economics don't look particularly good, but they have been mucking around for three or four decades with this, so sooner or later we should expect they would make it viable.

“Government money is making these technologies cheaper when they should be making clean technology cheaper.”

[Environment Victoria's full report can be found at environmentvictoria.org.au.]

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