Fears Hazelwood coal mine will become a toxic lake if flooded before clean-up

Environmental groups fear toxic coal ash will be released into the environment if the former Hazelwood coal mine in east Victoria is flooded and turned into a lake.

Coal ash is a by-product of burning coal to generate electricity and contains impurities including heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic.

At 640 gigalitres, the Hazelwood coal mine is larger than Sydney Harbor and is located just south of Morwell in the Latrobe Valley.

The mine’s owner, French energy giant Engie, is preparing an Environmental Effects Statement (EES) for the Victorian Government on its plans to fill it with water from the Latrobe River system.

The EES is not expected to be assessed by the Minister for Planning before 2024.

But groups like Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) want the Victorian Government to consider alternative options for rehabilitating the site.

EJA environmental advocate Chloe Badcock said the organization had commissioned two reports that coal ash would likely be released into the lake if the mine were flooded without cleaning it first.

“The reports indicated that removing the coal ash from the mine pit before flooding would be more proactive, protective and costly for Engie,” Ms Badcock said.

A computer graphic of the Hazelwood mine filled with water.
An artist’s rendering of the former Hazelwood coal mine that was filled with water to become a lake.(Scope of delivery: ENGIE)

EJA wanted to explore other options, such as B. a partial filling with solid material.

Engie has previously said it wanted to turn the mine into a lake because it was the safest and most stable solution.

environmental concerns

In 2020, Victoria Engie’s Environmental Protection Agency issued a cleanup notice after an improperly lined coal ash dam in Hazelwood leached into groundwater.

The coal ash at Hazelwood is stored in an on-site dam known as the Hazelwood Ash Retention Area (HARA) designed to prevent it from being released into the atmosphere.

EJA report author Steven Campbell has raised concerns about the HARA’s stability when submerged in water.

He recommended removing coal ash before filling the mine with water.

Tracey Anton, of local environmental group Friends of Latrobe Water, said all parties must acknowledge that a mine lake could be potentially toxic.

“If you have a full mine lake, this toxic material, the coal ash, will combine with the water and then either seep into the groundwater or flow into the Morwell River,” she said.

Engie said it was working with the Victorian Government and local communities to prepare an EES that would result in a “safe, stable and sustainable rehabilitation” of the mine.

“The EES for the Hazelwood Rehabilitation Project is in its early stages. Stakeholders will have an opportunity to comment on the draft scoping requirements for the EES when they are released by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning,” a company spokesman said.

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