Concern grows over Wonthaggi desal plant

November 17, 2007

Community concern over the Victorian state government's plan for a $3.1 billion desalination plant at Wonthaggi is growing following reports that the Labor government is forcibly acquiring properties around the proposed site. The local community and environmentalists have opposed the proposal as being environmentally damaging and the wrong solution to tackle water shortages.

The October 27 Melbourne Age reported that the Department of Sustainability and Environment had confirmed that it was finalising the compulsory acquisition of up to five properties to make way for the plant. Despite this step being taken, the government has yet to commit to undertaking an Environmental Effects Statement (EES), with the decision being referred to planning minister Justin Madden.

An economic impact study conducted by Monash University found that the proposal, which will be delivered as a public-private partnership, will result in economic growth. However this has not allayed fears that a partially privatised plant will result in an increase in the cost of water.

The proposed plant will use a technique called reverse osmosis that will pump vast quantities of seawater through a filtration process involving the use of chemicals such as chlorine, caustic soda and hydrochloric acid, some of which will go back into the ocean. Along with these toxic chemicals, brine with twice the level of salt as regular seawater will be pumped back into the ocean. It is not known what effect the changed salinity in the surrounding waters will have on marine life.

A damning report titled Desalination: Option or Distraction for a Thirsty World was released by WWF in June this year. The report states "all recent studies [of operating desalination plants] have found adverse impacts of entrainment" (the intake of seawater) and "that depletion of marine life may represent the most significant direct adverse effect of seawater desalination". The document goes on to report that there are "more cost effective and less potentially environmentally damaging alternatives available. This is particularly true of demand management, water conservation and water efficiency measures."

The plant will also be a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. When completed, the 150-billion-litre plant will use 900GWh of electricity annually. The process will also produce 30,000 tonnes of solid waste each year, which will need to be taken by truck to a landfill site. The state government has promised to expand the production of renewable energy to offset the emissions used by the desalination plant, but as yet no concrete projects have been proposed.

The Your Water Your Say Action Group has organised numerous protests and forums on the desalination issue, including a 1200-strong protest on Wonthaggi beach in October. Five hundred people attended a July 12 meeting of the campaign at the Wonthaggi Town Hall. This meeting passed a resolution opposing the development of the desalination plant as "an energy intensive and unnecessarily costly means of addressing water shortages".

An August 15 meeting of the Bass Coast Shire Council announced its "dismay at the lack of consultation with the ... community" and called for an EES to be carried out.

Your Water Your Say is planning an intensive three-week campaign against the desalination plant once the proposal goes to the planning minister to decide whether an EES will be carried out. To find out visit

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