The hope in watching grass grow, as nature slowly retakes former coal mine
- The coal pit at Alcoa’s former coal mine at Anglesea is 18 per cent full.
- Tensions remain about how to deliver the rest of the water needed to fill the pit.
- The company expects the mine’s rehabilitation could take another decade.
For Warren Sharp, watching grass grow is anything but boring. Indeed, he says it is one of the most satisfying parts of his job.
Sharp is overseeing the rehabilitation of Alcoa’s old coal mine in Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road. The company hopes the revegetation process will result in the deep pit and scarred landscape eventually blending seamlessly with the rest of the Great Otway National Park, one of Victoria’s biggest tourist destinations.
The former mine pit in Anglesea. Credit: Eddie Jim
Sharp says he was excited to see the native wallaby grass planted on a vast section of mine wall in 2020 has now grown to about 20 centimetres high.
“I used to be out taking pictures almost every day whenever we saw a change,” he says. “When you’re invested like I am, it’s not boring.”
Sharp says the wallaby grass was slow growing but has helped stabilise the mine walls and prevent erosion. Small wildlife track marks and the presence of birds and insects are all encouraging signs that nature is returning to the site, he says.
“Nobody likes mining. Unfortunately, it’s a necessary part of the world. Everything in the phone you’re holding comes out of a mine,” says Sharp, who took The Age on a tour of the site late last month.
“But the obligation is there to do it as responsibly as you can up to and including the closure and the rehab.”
Alcoa ran the old coal mine and power station at Anglesea for 46 years before its closure in 2015. It then began the process of rehabilitation, which included revegetation, planting grass and reducing the steepness of the mine’s walls.
The company handed back more than 6500 hectares of surrounding leased Crown land in 2017, which the state government later declared part of the national park. Alcoa still retains 143 hectares of freehold land, where the mine and station operated.
A towering chimney stack is all that remains of the power station the company demolished with explosives in 2018.
Alcoa’s Warren Sharp among the vegetation on the former mine walls in Anglesea. Credit: Eddie Jim
But now comes the mammoth task of rejuvenating the barren walls and filling the pit with water to create a lake, which is now about 18 per cent full. Sharp expects the rehabilitation will take at least another decade.
Under current plans, the lake will be twice the size of Albert Park Lake when full, but Alcoa’s decision to test whether it will use groundwater to help fill it has met some opposition from the Anglesea community.
Friends of Anglesea River spokesman Keith Shipton says Alcoa’s previous use of groundwater had resulted in reduced flows and greater acidification of the waterway.
“If Alcoa stops pumping from that aquifer, it will recover over time,” he says.
The chimney stack is the last remaining structure from Alcoa’s power station at Anglesea.Credit: Eddie Jim
Sharp insists the company’s science-based process of exploring groundwater use has not identified adverse impacts on the river.
Liberal MP for Polwarth Richard Riordan says recycled water should be used to fill the pit and has called for the construction of a pipeline starting from the Black Rock water reclamation plant on the Bellarine Peninsula.
He says the pipeline could run into the pit at Anglesea and then continue further into the Otway region to provide water for agricultural, lifestyle and recreational uses.
Riordan says the pipeline would help remove excess water run-off from residential developments in Torquay, and argues it will ease pressure on the local environment.
“There’s huge benefit that can be derived for the region from this,” he says.
Environment groups are also pushing for Alcoa’s Anglesea mine to be subject to “trailing liabilities” laws, which require miners to rehabilitate the land once their mining operations cease.
Environment Justice Australia lawyer Chloe Badcock says trailing liabilities should apply to every mine, quarry and offshore oil and gas project in Victoria. Miners in the Latrobe Valley, in the state’s east, are subject to trailing liabilities, but the laws do not apply to Alcoa in Anglesea.
“Without it, fossil fuel companies’ legal obligations are too weak, and we risk these private companies profiting at the expense of our environment and leaving communities to foot the bill,” Badcock says.
An artist’s impression of the Eden Project’s proposal for an ecotourism attraction at the former Alcoa coal mine.
The state government declined to comment on the mine’s rehabilitation or the push for expanding trailing liabilities to all mines.
The Anglesea mine closed not long before the much bigger Hazelwood in the Latrobe Valley, where solid progress is yet to begin on rehabilitation of the site.
Although the Hazelwood mine covers about 1300 hectares of land compared with Alcoa’s 140, Anglesea gives Hazelwood an insight into the slow process of restoring natural landscapes.
And it might not stop at rehabilitation. UK-based educational charity Eden Project, which turns old mines into ecotourism attractions, says it is discussing eco-attraction options for the Anglesea mine with state-owned Invest Victoria.
The charity transformed a clay mine into an ecotourism destination in Cornwall and is proposing something similar for the Surf Coast.
“We continue to work hard on progressing this project, building relationships with potential funders and exploring fresh approaches to delivering an Eden Project for Anglesea,” Eden Project chief experience development officer Blair Parkin says.
Sharp says that on balance, Alcoa maintained a good relationship with the Anglesea community while it was mining the site.
But ultimately, he says, the community will remember little of how it operated when it was digging up coal to produce electricity.
“All that people will really remember is how we leave,” he says.
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