THE Bald Hills Wind Farm website paints a glowing picture of a facility which will produce enough clean green energy to meet the electricity requirements of over 62,000 homes. As a long term average, according to the website, the wind farm should avoid up to 335,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum. This is the equivalent of taking over 77,000 cars off the road – or planting over half a million trees – each year.
Controversy, however, has dogged the wind farm project throughout nearly ten years of development.
Even now, as the 52-turbine $300 million project commences its construction phase, sections of the community, particularly neighbouring landowners at Walkerville and Tarwin Lower, remain vehemently opposed to it and have served notice on South Gippsland Shire Council that they will be closely watching to ensure the conditions of the planning permit are enforced every step of the way.
A dozen or so wind farm opponents were in the gallery at 9am last Wednesday when planning staff gave Council an update on the status of the development.
As the shire’s manager of planning and environmental health, Bryan Sword, explained, although the Minister for Planning has the authority to approve the development and is responsible for enforcing noise monitoring and compliance conditions, it is up to Council to monitor compliance and enforce all other planning permit conditions.
Mr Sward provided his department’s best advice as to whether the works completed by August 19 – D-day as far as the planning permit is concerned – satisfy permit conditions.
His advice was not what the opponents of the wind farm wanted to hear, for he said “Based on evidence and relevant VCAT precedence the development is considered to have started by 19 August.”
It was back in 2003 that Wind Power Pty Ltd first lodged a planning permit application. An Environmental Effects Statement was prepared for a project comprising 84 wind generators at a maximum height of 125 metres. However, following public exhibition and a panel hearing, the permit application was revised in 2004 to cover 52 wind generators at a maximum height of 110 metres and on August 19 the Minister for Planning issued a Planning Permit.
In 2006 the Minister extended the expiry of the permit by five years. In 2008 the wind farm was acquired by Mitsui and Co (Australia) Pty Ltd and in 2009 the Minister for Planning approved a turbine height increase from 110m to 135m. In 2010 VCAT dismissed an application disputing the lawfulness of the Minister’s decision to increase the height.
In September 2011 Mitsui commenced consultation with the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) and other authorities about the process for submissions and approval of required plans for the wind farm and in May 2012 lodged development plans with DPCD.
With time running out before the planning permit expired on August 19, on July 10 Bald Hills Wind Farm Pty Ltd appealed to VCAT on the Minister for Planning’s failure to make a decision within a reasonable time. On August 3 VCAT ordered the approval of the development plans and allowed works to commence.
Mr Sword gave a summary of the works carried out to August 19 and illustrated it with slides. The works include:
- Installation of site signage;
- Completion of survey for site compound;
- Preparation of compound area and placement of 400mm layer of fill;
- Construction of compound area;
- Clearing and stripping of internal road;
- Unsuitable material along road section removed to a depth of 500mm;
- Grading of internal road;
- Cutting of swale drains;
- Temporary repair of public access road;
- Cutting of land drains to 300mm and placement of fill;
- Ongoing commitment through contracts for supply and works.
Several speakers later disputed that such works did indeed meet the conditions of the permit. Don Jelbart asked Council to rule “both that the bit of gravel put down and the extensive damage to the Buffalo-Waratah road does not constitute a significant start, and that the permit to build the Bald Hills Wind Farm has elapsed”.
Don Fairbrother was similarly scathing of the wind farm proponent’s efforts to meet the permit conditions, saying that it was “all work that could be reinstated”. He maintained that the Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, had stated that it was not until concrete was poured that a project could be said to have officially commenced.
Mr Jelbart said it was unfortunate that this view had not been expressed in writing.
In response to concerns raised by Cr Kieran Kennedy about the state of the Buffalo-Waratah Road, Matthew Croome from Mitsui said that a contractor had been engaged to review and repair the road and Mitsui acknowledged responsibility for maintaining that road and others in the region during the course of the project. He said any concerns should be raised with Mitsui.
Shire CEO Tim Tamlin added that the public was free to raise concerns about the wind farm with Council, suggesting they be addressed to customer service officers at Council’s front desk and they will be passed on to the appropriate authority. The Community Reference Group which is to be established shortly to ensure the public is kept informed will be looking at how best to channel concerns.