Alcoa, Anglesea and Air Action

A background story on the recent mine closure.

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A couple of weeks ago, Alcoa announced the closure of its coal-fired power plant and open-cut mine at Anglesea.

This will see 85 people losing their jobs and follows the closure of the Alcoa Point Henry aluminum smelter last year, which the Anglesea plant had supplied electricity to. After the smelter’s closure, Alcoa was unable to find a buyer for its 150 megawatt power plant and instead decided to shut it from August 31.

What are the reactions in the local community? Julia Clancy from Anglesea and Mark Smith from Aireys Inlet give us an insight:

Only time can tell the story of coal at Anglesea on the Victoria’s Surf Coast.  There are first the millions of years it took to form and bury the deposit, then the fifty years or so of its exploitation, so welcome at first in the name of industry, jobs and progress, then recent critical turning points: growing awareness of global warming and understanding of the detrimental health effects of coal combustion.

Projected changes to clean air regulations Australia-wide meant that the operator of the forty-six-year-old plant would have had to install expensive “scrubbers” in its smoke stack to reduce pollution.  Corangamite MP Sarah Henderson said recently that Alcoa’s failure to install scrubbers was “frankly irresponsible”. The Anglesea plant “emits some 39,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, an amount three times that emitted by Hazelwood Power Station in Morwell” she said.

“When inhaled, sulphur dioxide can significantly affect human health, causing airway irritation particularly for people with asthma or other respiratory conditions.”  Ms Henderson went on to say that current standards were clearly too lenient, and that “sulphur dioxide emissions will firmly be on the agenda” when state and federal Environment ministers meet.

The two and a half thousand people living permanently in the township have put up with coal dust blown out of the pit, and the more dangerous sulphur dioxide and minute particulate emitted from the tall chimney for almost fifty years.

Though there have been protests in the past.  Twenty five years ago the late Peter Bones complained that dust had blown up from the coal mines for the fourth time in a year, covering the township in a thick black film. He said “it looked like a bushfire was heading for Anglesea”.  Fellow protester Moss Darby, a Second War veteran, now 92 years old, wants to credit Alcoa with their efforts to mitigate pollution. “They installed a sprinkler system in the pit” he said, “and have since installed stations to monitor emission levels.” He and others in the town are grateful for Alcoa’s contribution to local sporting and community groups and want them acknowledged.

But emissions are still of concern to psychiatrist Dr Jacinta  Morahan, who first became interested in health issues during planning for the Anglesea Primary School’s move to land purchased from Alcoa.  “In that year, 2010, we found out that Alcoa planned to burn Hi Cal 40 in its furnace.  It’s a fuel made from treated aluminium waste, and is associated with potentially harmful fluoride emissions. Fierce community opposition was demonstrated at a public meeting.  It was made clear that Anglesea didn’t want it, and the trial was cancelled.” (Alcoa stated that “the Hi Cal 40 trial was cancelled after a data error discovered during a management review indicated that a range of design modifications would be required to deliver Alcoa’s sustainability objectives for the project.”)

Jacinta’s subsequent research on the health impacts of coal mining and combustion are detailed in her comprehensive submission to a March 2014 Senate Clean Air enquiry. Sulphur dioxide levels in Anglesea are higher than would be tolerated in Europe or America, and levels of particulates so small they can enter the bloodstream when breathed in are not being monitored by an independent authority.  Alcoa reported after their monitoring that excessive particulate levels could be attributed to bushfire or combustion heaters, wind generated dust, pollens and sea spray, but more recently an English investigation via satellite found particulate levels in a 100km radius around the plant were among the highest in the country, though not exceeding current clean air regulations

“Nial Finegan is the CEO of the Environment Protection Authority Victoria.  He was at the last Alcoa Community Consultation meeting and supported SCAA’s repeated assertion that meeting current air quality standards does not infer safety.  He also made the point that the fact that Alcoa requires a licence from the EPA demonstrates that the coal mine and power station are sources of pollution,” Dr Morahan said.

Once Alcoa announced closure of the Point Henry smelter near Geelong, many more people joined the band of locals concerned about emissions from the mine and power plant and their proximity to the primary school and homes.  Surf Coast Air Action is now a model community action group, well organised, inclusive and adept in the use of social media. Young professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses, retirees and local businesspeople have joined to campaign for a cleaner, better environment for themselves and their children. Their leaders have committed a staggering amount of time, thousands of hours, to SCAA.

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Educator and author Mark Smith and his partner community mental health worker Lynne Batson have been involved in “a few causes over the years”.  They were part of Stop the Ocean Pollution STOP, working to prevent discharge of primary treated sewage into the ocean about a kilometer east of the town.  “We now have tertiary treatment with water reticulated to the football club and golf course, as well as some discharge” Mark says.

“When we heard that the Point Henry aluminium smelter was closing, that’s what tipped us into action.  Point Henry supported so many, more than 800, jobs in Geelong.  There was no other justification for keeping it open.  They had a social licence to operate that mine as long as it was supporting so many jobs, and lost it when Point Henry closed.”

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Ingenious in planning protest events, they’re always aware that participation could be a problem.  “There was the live Shut it Down sign written on the beach.  We realized that we didn’t know how big the letters on the sand should be” Lynne admitted. “Then people started streaming over the sandhills and down to the beach, and even people who didn’t know it was on, who were walking their dogs, joined in.”

Finally the group sent a big message.

Barrister Andrew Laird who joined SCAA at about the same time has become a Twitter expert, to his own mild surprise.  “I’ve gone from not touching social media at all twelve months ago to using it extensively because I can see the value of it for this sort of campaign.  It lets you disseminate information and engage with people.  It’s hard to get your story out on the mainstream media – using social media we can set the agenda, we don’t censor, we tolerate differences of opinion and encourage debate though not if it degenerates into abuse.”

Some younger Alcoa employees concerned about air quality post from time to time.  Workers with children at the Primary School even record when the wind blows smoke from the chimney towards the school and say they want scrubbers installed.  “Our impression, based on the feedback we have received, is that older workers would be happy to take a package” Andrew said.

Lee Jupp’s father was one of the first to be employed at the mine and power station.  She wanted the plant shut down and knows that some present day workers did too. “My dad was the oldest of the first people to start working to die.  He died at 69 of cancer.  The others all died younger, many in their forties, and they all died of some sort of cancer” she said.

She’s not afraid to speak out openly about her concerns.  Her 21 year old daughter Alex developed a bone cancer, Ewings Sarcoma, a children’s cancer when she was 17   “More and more cancer is popping up down here.  Whether it’s co-incidental or not I don’t know,” Lee said.

There is no doubt that Alcoa Anglesea is one of the dirtiest plants in the country.  The English study of mines and power stations at risk of becoming stranded assets found Anglesea to be at the top of Carbon Dioxide emissions per kilowatt hour generated.  This makes the plant vulnerable to tighter regulation as well as closure to mitigate climate change.

For everybody who lives at Anglesea, whether for or against closure of the mine and power station, jobs are a very important consideration.  Dr Nick Aberle, the Campaign Manager at peak NGO Environment Victoria, has studied the rehabilitation of mine sites and believes that covering the exposed coal and associated works at Anglesea would employ about 40 full time workers for a decade.

Locals are already talking about a lake, adapted for all sorts of water sports, and a study of the development of the coal seam could lead to the establishment of a fascinating visitor facility.

Local consultant geologist Dr George Carman studies local history and geology as a hobby. He explains that a great rift valley was formed between Australia and Antarctica as the last parts of Gondwana pulled apart. Both the Gippsland and Otway valleys were arms of the rift on the Australian side.

Topographically Anglesea would probably have looked something like the Gippsland coast at Lakes Entrance – there would have been sandhills, and behind them lagoons and swamps where the vegetation was wonderfully varied and luxuriant.  At the start of the Eocene period around fifty million years ago the whole world was wetter and warmer and this part of Australia was blanketed in tropical rainforest.

Palaeobotanist Dr David Christophel  collected fossils from the mine’s overburden in the 1970s.  He spent many years studying relics of the plants whose traces had been lost in the heating and compression process during which coal was formed from the Anglesea wetland forest.

“Once we got about a 1000 of them we were able to look at the size and the shape and compare them to some other plants we found in Australia and we realised that what we had here was a fossil rainforest.  This was emphasised by the fact that maybe of the first 500 leaves we looked at there were over 100 different kinds. So we got to the point that we knew we had a fossil rainforest, a tropical rainforest” he wrote on the Museum Victoria website.

Dr Christophel concluded that 40 million years ago when the last connection between Antarctica and Australia was severed, cold ocean currents circulated, the area became cooler and the vegetation changed.  He could show that there was no evolutionary connection between the rainforest plants at Anglesea and the eucalypts which replaced them.  Similar plants now grow only in the tropical rain forests of Northern Australia particularly at Noah Creek in the Daintree National Park.

He donated his fossil collection to Museum Victoria.  Perhaps some could be on show at a Visitor Centre which would tell the whole story of the formation of the coal seam, its discovery and exploitation and the issues which led to the closure of the mine and power station.

But many SCAA members are not confident they can allow themselves to think too much about the future yet.  The campaign continues.  The Knitting Nanas of Toolangi, the Climate Guardians, the Voices of the Valley and Pacific Climate Warriors have all been engaged in this and their own similar struggles.  And as well, the group is using Facebook and Twitter to great effect.

There’s a strong groundswell of popular support, but who can tell what storms are brewing.  Surfers all, the Anglesea group will continue to keep an eye on conditions, pick their waves and ride them right in until their battle is won.

Sarah Henderson’s speech

Geelong Advertiser Geelong Advertiser Sat Dec 29 1990 by Kim Gregson

Surf Coast Air Action Senate Committee Submission [PDF 1.7mb]

Caldecott report – Stranded Assets – Subcritical Coal in Australia [PDF ]

Alcoa – Particulate Monitoring Program [PDF 2.7mb]

Museum Victoria website

 

1 Comment

  • Reply May 23, 2015

    Mark Smith

    Great article Julia. We at SCAA have been successful in shutting down this behemoth but now the task begins of rehabilitating this massive scar on our coastal landscape. The same energy that went into the original (supposedly unwinnable!) campaign will now need to be directed into making sure the job is done properly.

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