In 2012 it proved that it had the ability to smash the sea into water fit to drink. Since then, it has been sitting on the edge of the coast, not so much mothballed as simply not needed. On the nearby highway, bushes are starting to obscure angry red billboards that declared absence of merit and virtue. Those signs remind us that in 2007 then Victorian premier Steve Bracks’ helicopter once touched down near here when he announced the desalination plant.
Today, in the shadow of the plant, it’s impossible to separate it from the campaign to kill it.
The desal’s two main legacies are the ability to quench Melbourne’s thirst in time of drought and the burden of paying for that capacity over the next several decades: $1.8 million a day even if no water is used, or about $20 billion over 30 years.
Recently I heard that after a very dry winter the State Government was considering placing an order – the first – for water from Wonthaggi’s forgotten landmark. The next sound I heard was someone saying that was a bad idea. Ask about the desal plant and it’s hard to find locals who welcomed the project.
Certainly, there were some short-term gains to the local area. The takeaways, supermarkets and bottle shops bustled with hi-viz work gear. Landlords did OK but some tenants were forced to move from suddenly unaffordable houses. A few houses around town carry the decal “Built with Desal Dollars” on their mailbox.
The campaign against the desal plant brought sections of the community together but some businesses and protesters lost standing. It taught people how to mount effective protests. Once the project’s inevitability was apparent, some people moved away. The pristine beach had been desecrated, the memories were too painful.
The State Government now employs strategies to avoid activating the community. Proposed initiatives such as the South Leongatha mega waste tip and coal seam gas mining have to follow due process. Public hearings and information sessions give people a voice. Inquiries, committees, submissions and reports are used to enrol the public in the outcome.
Are there similarities between the desal and CSG mining campaigns? As with the desal, signs guarding gates and communities warn that, whatever the outcome of the inquiry, CSG mining isn’t welcome. Well-attended rallies in Melbourne are enlisting the people of Melbourne in the struggle. Several people have been involved in both campaigns.
Vilya Congreave was one of about a dozen local people arrested in the fight against the desal. Mention that the desalination plant might be cranked up in earnest and her first thought is of “the rusting pipes and leaching of chemicals when they start the damn thing up”.
She recalls fun and camaraderie during the five-year campaign while also noting abuse and harassment. Memories are tempered by the overkill and trauma of the drawn-out arrest process. A court appearance bought to the fore her ability to articulate community concerns. Her advice? “Stick to your principals but consider how far you are prepared to go. The prospect of arrest is daunting, particularly in light of the negative impact on career options.”
When Jessica Harrison heard that the desal plant might be put to use, her heart sank at “the thought of the marine ecosystem that will end up at the Lyndhurst Tip; and all that highly saline water, contaminated with caustic chemicals, going back into the sea”.
She was heavily involved in the Your Water Your Say community group that initially led the campaign. When it was forced to cease operating, after the State Government won legal costs against it, she joined Watershed Victoria, which took over the campaign. She was arrested as part of that campaign and says she is is prepared to be arrested again to keep Victoria CSG-free.
Jessica grew up in Joh Bjelke Petersen’s police state. She sees “protest” as an essential reflex action against government agencies that get out of control if left unchecked. She says protesters need to remain vigilant and be prepared to act swiftly. She keeps placards close at hand.
She suggests that a great strategy is to cut off funding by activating stakeholders and shareholders to prevent financial institutions backing anti-social or environmentally damaging projects.
Neil Rankine, a current Bass Coast councillor and former mayor, says the recent proposal to pump water to the other side of the state is “crazy” due to the costs involved.
His fight against the desal plant began with a topographic map. He questioned the need for an industrial facility on pristine coast 150 kilometres from where the water was needed. He studied maps, made calculations and came up with better solutions in a detailed submission that analysed the problem and recommended local initiatives within existing government policy.
“This was the critical point for me,” Neil says. “They ignored my submission; they didn’t even acknowledge receiving it for three months.”
He supports the CSG-free movement and advises campaigners to voice logical arguments. "Get the people of Melbourne on board. We only started to get traction when we were getting big numbers to rallies on the steps of Parliament House.”
The Watershed Victoria website details the reasons for the campaign and documents many of the events and protests. It has an extensive gallery of cartoons and artwork and could be a source of ideas for future protests.
April 1 each year is the deadline for water orders from the desal by Melbourne Water. The Aquasure website states that two to three truckloads of waste will be carted to the Lyndhurst toxic waste facility every day once the plant commences operations.
The State Government Inquiry into Unconventional Gas will deliver its report in early December.
A south-north pipeline?
With growers in northern and western Victoria facing drought conditions, the Government has floated the idea of using the decommissioned north-south pipeline in reverse to pump desal water to them.
Neil Rankine says his understanding is that if their dams run low, Western District growers can source highly treated water at up to $2000 per mega litre. “Desal water would be $5000 per mega litre, with every Melbourne Water user paying for it.”
“Currently the desal either pumps water into the south eastern suburbs supply or Cardinia reservoir. This isn’t any help for the northern (or western) irrigators. Water would need to be pumped across to the west if their natural flow supply is reduced by allowing irrigators to use it instead.
“Worse still if the north south pipeline is run in reverse to send water north. There would be massive costs, and there just aren’t the existing connections to parts of Melbourne’s supply either so new pipelines would need to be built.”
November 19, 2015
The quote that the desal smashed seawater into drinking water in 2012 demands a response. Sure, the commissioning produced drinking-quality water (albeit with added boron), but the outlet structures collapsed under the strain of introducing a full load of "brine" back into our nearshore waters - adjacent to the "jewel in the crown" of Victoria's marine national parks - the Bunurong.
We were assured at a council meeting soon after that suitable industrial bandaid had been applied to the wound,and that "she'll be right,mate". Aquasure was hit with a Pollution Abatement notice, and I was informed by the new boss of EPA Gippsland that the hiccup had killed off everything within the "mixing zone". The corporation did not know this was happening, despite their assurances of "world's best practice".
We sought a public meeting about this - insisted upon by then-mayor Claire Le Serve - but this never happened. The best that Aquasure and their state government masters could come up with was "no impact on beneficial species". I strongly suspect that this means "shareholders". This milestone was a year late.
Unfinished business? I, for one, have a long memory, and the upcoming activation of the great white elephant only serves to stimulate me into getting some proper answers to the desal debacle.
Mark Robertson. President, Watershed Victoria