Climate camp targets most polluting power station

September 20, 2009

Over September 12-13, more than 400 people travelled to the Hazelwood coal-fired power station in Victoria's Latrobe Valley to send a clear message: "Switch off Hazelwood, switch on renewables."

People, including families, came from across the state, to what was the first of several climate camps initiated by the February 2009 Canberra Climate Summit.

Hazelwood is the developed world's most polluting power station. It is based on outdated 1950s technology and "cost-cutting" measures by its private owners it have led workers to raise serious safety concerns.

The protest was advertised as a mass civil disobedience action, and used a variety of tactics. The organising collective stressed the peaceful, non-violent nature of the actions. On September 12, many protesters camped nearby to discuss plans for the protest the following day.

September 13 dawned with a real sense of excitement and anticipation, as groups gathered near the power station. Neither the morning drizzle nor the heavy police presence was able to dent the carnival spirit.

The atmosphere was electric. Juggling clowns mixed with high school students and university environment collectives, parents with young children carrying "dirty coal" placards, and activist groups such as the Wombat Warriors, Resistance, and the Socialist Alliance.

Carbon Cops, Radical Cheerleaders and Ministers for Energy Resources and Silly Walks joined local climate action groups to take their message to Hazelwood.

There was no official union presence, but individual union members were in the crowd, as well as some locals from the valley. A Morwell family from near Hazelwood told Green Left Weekly: "Sometimes you can taste [the pollution] in the air. You can tell the difference when you come back from a weekend away."

Indigenous rights activist and Gunai-Kurnai elder Robbie Thorpe started with a welcome to country and a smoking ceremony.

Long-term anti-nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney chaired the protest, which was also addressed by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and Sven Teske from Greenpeace Germany.

Teske told GLW that a transition from coal jobs to green jobs must start now because it could take a decade to complete. "A just transition is about the future of the workers and about saving the climate", he said. "It is a win-win situation. Workers should join the protest to demand the right policy framework for these future jobs in renewable energies."

Teske said renewables had become the second-largest industry in Germany, and most of the jobs required good qualifications and were well-paid.

Armed with placards, banners and chants galore, the crowd took the clean energy message on a 1.5 kilometre vibrant march along Hazelwood's heavily fortified perimeter.

On arrival at the front gates, David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red, tackled the argument that "if we don't supply the coal, somebody else will".

Spratt said: "This reminds me of the arms trades and the arms dealer when there is a war going on, and they say if we don't sell the arms to slaughter people somebody else will."

He also condemned the state ALP government for inaction on climate. "All the greenwash in the world … don't fool anybody anymore", he said. "Victoria's emissions are going up."

Protest co-organiser and doctor Merryn Redenbach spoke about the health impacts of burning coal, and the plight of Pacific Island climate refugees.

Protesters hung banners and "community decommission notices" on the fence. The speeches were followed by individual or small group civil disobedience actions. People tried to get over the fences and onto the power station site, which had been secured with extra fencing, private security and hundreds of police.

Some tried to push over the temporary fencing, which resulted in police charging the protesters on horseback. Water police in scuba gear patrolled the nearby lake and a police helicopter circled the area continuously.

A minority of protesters took part in the civil disobedience actions. Twenty-one people were arrested for trespassing and one for assaulting a police officer. Protest organisers pledged support for all those arrested.

After two hours of actions, the police threatened to use capsicum spray if protesters decided to end the day with a mass charge on the fences.

Protest co-organiser Ben Courtice told GLW that, despite the "ridiculously high" police presence, the action was very successful. He said it challenged the legitimacy of the coal industry. Courtice also said it was useful to have the protest at the power plant itself, and wanted such actions more often.

"Mass direct action at the source of the pollution strips away the facade of faceless bureaucrats and you get to see the polluting infrastructure right in front of your eyes", he said. "It undoubtedly had a big impact on many people who had not seen these kinds of horrendous power plants before."

Another activist from Melbourne University's postgraduate environment network told GLW: "Hazelwood represents the consequences of trading environmental and social values to make money. The Rudd government needs to phase out coal-fired plants, and the unions need to get on side."

The climate camp was a great success, charged with enthusiasm and a desire for positive change.

In the words of one protester: "The gay rights and anti-apartheid movements in the 1970s and '80s showed that decision-makers can listen to public opinion. We can make this happen again."

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