BY TRISHA REIMERS
GEELONG — Controversy has erupted among environmentalists, trade unionists and community activists over plans for a $200 million power station to be built eight kilometres outside the city. Anger at the plan bubbled over at an August 9 public meeting organised by the Community Forum, attended by more than 500 concerned residents.
Although the plant's manager maintains the power station will not cause air, noise or visual pollution, environmental activists aren't so sure. They point to the plant's use of technology that is obsolete in many parts of Europe, and challenge the company's assertions that the air emissions from the plant will not be harmful.
Even though the emissions from the plant will be clear and therefore impossible to see, "they will still contain volatile organic matter. You can't see mustard gas, but it is deadly", said one local campaigner.
Despite the widespread concern of residents, the state Labor government has decided that the building of a power station in Golden Plains does not require an Environmental Impact Study (EIS).
The carrying out of such a study could set the building of the station back by 12 months, a delay not acceptable to either the company, AES, or the state government.
Geelong residents have been particularly concerned with the huge amount of water that will be required by the plant. When discussion began with the local shire, the company assessed that its annual water usage would be in the vicinity of 378 million litres of water.
AES was forced to revise this figure downward to 100 million litres after a public outcry. Following negotiations with Golden Plains shire, the projection for annual water use by the company was revised down to 67 million litres.
Even at those levels, citizens of Geelong fear that long years of low water levels and water restrictions are now likely to continue, as this single power station will use as much water as several thousand residents.
At the core of local outrage has been the lack of community consultation on the part of the company.
AES is making efforts to reach out to community members, including by organising community tours of its La Trobe Valley plant, but activists opposed to the station say this doesn't go nearly far enough. They say that community input into this major project has been minimal, residents' concerns have not been dealt with and that the company is trying to retract promises already made.
The company is seeking to have three clauses from the original contract between itself and the Golden Plains shire withdrawn by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
One of those clauses states that the plant will only be allowed to run at 5% capacity!
Introduced on the basis that demand for electricity in the region is not great enough to justify higher production, the clause was an attempt to win residents' support for the station.
Opponents pointed out that, at those levels, there was no point in building, maintaining and supplying the station at all.
AES will now attempt to convince the VCAT that the power station should be allowed to run at a much higher capacity than already agreed to, which will in turn mean a much greater water usage, probably closer to the original figure of 378 million litres.
The company is also seeking to overturn clauses which insist on the company using "best practice" for water usage and energy generation, which would have obliged it to use only the most efficient and environmentally safe technology. AES says such a stipulation will undermine its profitability, by forcing it to upgrade.
Meanwhile, community and environmental activists are discussing the best ways to put an end to the power station plans. Their first step is to seek to force an Environmental Impact Study to be carried out on the proposal.
Activists have been heartened by the support given to the campaign by trade unions in the area. A message from Craig Johnston, the state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, was greeted with applause when it was read out at the August 9 public meeting.
Johnston called for an EIS to be completed before construction of the power station went ahead, and announced that his union was working to organise a meeting between the community and the state government to allow the concerns of the residents to be addressed.
The Victorian Electrical Trades Union has taken a further step, deciding to place a "green ban" on the operation. Bans will be placed on all three proposed power stations in the area, one of which is already partially built.
The union's secretary, Dean Mighell, told the meeting the ETU was right behind the community, even though "green bans" are illegal under the Workplace Relations Act.
Given high unemployment in the construction industry, the decision to put bans on the plant was not made lightly, Mighell said, but the only long-term solution for workers and the community was to organise for better jobs in renewable energy that will not be environmentally harmful.
"You're a powerful voice when you're powerful in numbers, and powerful in unity", he told those gathered.
Representatives of the Greens, the Democrats, Labor and even the Liberals also addressed the meeting, all with similarly critical positions on the power station.
The Geelong branch of the Socialist Alliance has joined in calling for a full review of the planned station, passing a motion demanding an EIS and full public consultation before the station is authorised.