Dust-up over proposed mine's impact on one of Victoria's greenest food bowls

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John Hine has farmed broccoli, cauliflower and sweet corn in the Lindenow Valley in eastern Victoria for 43 years.

He does not consider himself a “greenie” — but then again he has never had to consider what it would be like to have a mine operating 500 metres from the edge of his property.

Kalbar Operations plans to build a 1,675-hectare mine to extract zircon and rare earth minerals critical to technology, communications and transport.

Kalbar, backed to the tune of $144 million by British firm Appian Capital Advisory, has laid out the Environmental Effects Statement (EES) of the mine.

For Mr Hine, the 10,000-page report was alarming.

Cauliflower seedlings growing in a covered nursery.Cauliflower seedlings growing in a covered nursery.
John Hine grows millions of cauliflowers every year.(ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis)

Risk to pickers

Vegetable harvesters in the area are concerned about the potential effects of irradiated or contaminated dust arising from the mine.

The mine’s air quality and greenhouse gas assessment found that, in the worst case, the operation could create dust levels that exceeded air quality standards by up to 74 per cent.

The operator proposes real-time monitoring of dust levels, adjustment of scheduling on high-risk days, and the widespread use of sprinkler systems.

The EES concluded that, with this mitigation plan, dust was only a risk exceeding the air quality standard on four days of the year.

On those days, the company proposed limiting mining and transport on top of its regular mitigation.

“Management of dust at the site in accordance with the recommended mitigation techniques will mean that dust is unlikely to be a significant risk to horticulture,” a Kalbar spokesperson said.

But Mr Hine said the risk of dust from the mine would jeopardise his ability to provide his workers with safe conditions, including managing the risk of silicosis.

“Any issues with the air quality when we’ve got pickers in the fields — we won’t be able to allow them within 3 or 4 kilometres of the mineral sand mine,” he said.

A line of folders featuring the name "Kalbar".A line of folders featuring the name "Kalbar".
The Environmental Effects Statement runs longer than 10,000 pages.(ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis)

Lucrative local industry

Kalbar’s horticulture report in the EES stated the value of the produce in the area as $62 million per annum.

That figure, based on self-reporting by farmers, came from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Kalbar’s agriculture report valued the output at $120 million annually, based on figures from Agriculture Victoria.

Mr Hine said between 30 and 50 trucks left the valley every day.

“It’s worth about $150 million a year and employs around 1,500 workers on the Lindenow flats directly,” he said.

“The Mitchell River Valley produces about 30 per cent or 40 per cent of vegies down in Melbourne — we’ve got a very clean and green image in this valley, and any damage to that image will have a severe effect on our outlets.

A woman with short, salt-and-pepper hair, a grey cardigan and a bright scarf stands in a country setting.A woman with short, salt-and-pepper hair, a grey cardigan and a bright scarf stands in a country setting.
Mine Free Glenaladale coordinator Debbie Carruthers says the impact on jobs could be greater than it looks on paper.(ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis)

Fears for jobs

Kalbar said the mine would employ up to 200 people over its 15-year project life.

Mine Free Glenaladale spokeswoman Debbie Carruthers said the full extent of the impact on agricultural jobs in the area needed to be considered.

“Agriculture generates four indirect jobs for every direct job,” she said.

“Anyone can put in a submission raising concerns to the Government, in particular how this mine will impact on the vegetables you eat.”

Public submissions on the Environmental Effects Statement close on Thursday 29 October at 5:00pm.

The East Gippsland Shire Council has been granted an exemption from the deadline to allow the newly elected council to make a formal council resolution on the mine.

A public inquiry hearing will be held over six weeks from February, with experts and community members to testify.

The inquiry will then present its report to Victoria’s planning and agriculture ministers for approval.