The long, dark shadow of Hazelwood: a community caught in a painful and uncertain transition

Workers leave Hazelwood on its last day of production, six months ago. 

environment editor

Today marks six months since the Hazelwood Power Station, east of Melbourne in the Latrobe Valley, controversially shut down, leaving the area unprepared and divided.

French multinational owner ENGIE suddenly announced in November 2016 that the provider of one quarter of Victoria’s electricity and a large employer in the area would be closed by March this year, despite locals believing that there would be a staged closure over several years in the future.

Hundreds of workers lost their jobs and the area has seen other businesses reliant on Hazelwood and its wages close since March. Morwell, the town hardest hit, has lost two pubs in the town centre among other businesses, and house prices are low.

Voices of the Valley president Wendy Farmer says the community is still in disbelief and still hopes the jobs will come back.

“Some people still think that the old SEC could still be available and a knight riding on a white horse will give us 1000 jobs, and it’s not going to happen,” she says, referring to the Victorian Government’s State Electricity Commission which had a monopoly on electricity generation and distribution before its privatisation in the 1990s led to job losses.

Despite $266 million pledged by the State Government to the Latrobe Valley Authority (LVA) – an organisation “tasked with securing the economic future of the Latrobe Valley” – the money has mostly been used for short-term employment while long-term opportunities will take time to create, Ms Farmer says.

Former Hazelwood worker Bruce McDonald, 59, who lost his job in March after nearly 40 years in the power industry, says he hopes a new power station will be built in the area.

Voices of the Valley President Wendy Farmer in Morwell with Hazelwood in the background. Picture: Jackson Peck

He’s worried he won’t get another job after watching his former colleagues struggling to get work. Mr McDonald is just starting his search properly after taking a long holiday following his redundancy.

“I’ve been surprised that some of them have struggled to find employment because a few of them are very skillful people who are younger than I am … I wouldn’t be so surprised at my age of struggling a bit harder.”

But Ms Farmer thinks there is no chance another coal-fired power station will be built in the area.

“Where we’ve got a federal government saying, ‘well let’s reopen Hazelwood or let’s start a clean coal fired-power station … we need coal, coal, coal’, and I think that’s where people, a hope is embedded back into them that it might start,” she says.

“You’ve got a large percentage of the community that know that Hazelwood’s time was over, it was old, it was dangerous for the community, it was dangerous for the workers and it’s over – but what is next for the Latrobe Valley?”

ENGIE ruled out using coal from the Hazelwood site for any other coal projects at their third community consultation held last week in Morwell in the face of questions by attendees.

“This month’s session …. continued the conversations that senior management have started with the community and enabled attendees to put forward their thoughts, comments and suggestions on subjects such as mine rehabilitation, fire readiness, hazardous materials and station decommissioning,” an ENGIE in Australia spokesperson said.

Concerned locals listen to ENGIE’s Mine Technical Services Manager James Faithful explain the proposal to fill the mine pit with water. Picture Jackson Peck

More than 70 locals attended to listen to updates on the Hazelwood Rehabilitation Project and ask questions, particularly about the mine’s rehabilitation.

However, many attendees say ENGIE has already made some big decisions without consultation and were simply presenting them.

Long-time Latrobe Valley residents David and Rosemary Langmore are concerned that the community’s views are not being heard and are especially worried about ENGIE’s proposal to fill the mine pit with water.

“If there’s going to be a good conversation, all options that people consider are serious options should still be on the table and open for discussion,” he says.

“You cannot presume that a big lake is actually a feasible option because we don’t know whether there is going to be the quantity of water available in both the short-term and long-term.”

Another consultation attendee Dr Jessica Reeves, senior lecturer in Environmental Science at Federation University’s Gippsland campus which neighbours the Hazelwood mine, is equally concerned about ENGIE’s consultation process and proposal to fill the open-cut pit with water.

“I was a little shocked, it seemed like a such a done deal. The previous meeting I went to, it was very much ‘we will speak to the community about what they want to the outcome to be’ … but the options that were put on the table were very very firm,” Dr Reeves says.

I’d just like an awful lot more information about had they actually considered the long-term impacts on the overall ecology and water quality.”

About 150 Hazelwood workers have contracts until December 2018 to help rehabilitate the mine site but what happens after that is uncertain, says Ms Farmer.

David and Rosemary Langmore believe that the Hazelwood mine site “should be a long-term asset for this community and region and not a long-term liability”

“There are people that have left and there are people that are talking about leaving, young people are asking the questions of what jobs will there be. Will there be jobs in their lifetime? That’s a really sad comment to hear from a young person,” she says.

Many worry about the future of the area. After living in the Valley for over 40 years, Mr and Mrs Langmore want the region to keep providing the opportunities that it has to them.

“We feel that the Latrobe Valley is a fabulous place to live and work and we really feel that we have benefited from living here but we want to make sure that it continues to be an attractive place to live and work,” Mrs Langmore says.

Mr Langmore agrees.

“We shouldn’t be accepting third-rate solutions if there are first-rate ones. ”