On Thursday, two Quit Coal volunteers climbed up one of the cooling towers at Yallourn Power Station. It was a direct challenge to the handouts the Federal Government is giving to the power station and a defiance of the critical infrastructure laws, designed to curtail coal and climate protest.
The facility is one of the most emissions intensive coal fired power stations in the world. Given the decrease in grid power consumption and the in crease in electricity produced from renewable sources, it also provides unnecessary extra capacity that could be decommissioned without endangering supply. The site has been plagued by a series of other problems, with the mine flooding earlier in the year, causing the entire power station to shut down for a week. The massive amounts of water remaining in the mine, contaminated with mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium and other toxic substances found in coal, are still being pumped into the local river system, leading out into the Gippsland Lakes. This is threatening fishing, tourism and farming in the region and poses an unacceptable risk to the river system and the health of people downstream.
In addition to all this, the process of mining and burning the coal at the site also releases particulate matter, which has been long known to cause and aggravate a host of health problems for people living in the area; including asthma, lung disease and a range of different cancers.
“Yallourn is a dangerous relic that continually poses a threat to local communities and vital ecosystems in the region, whilst making a huge contribution to dangerous changes in our climate. All of this has not stopped the federal government from giving China Light and Power, the owner of Yallourn, $257 million in handouts this financial year dressed up as “compensation” for the carbon tax” said Quit Coal spokesperson and climber Chloe Aldenhoven.
None of the money is going towards supporting the workers in the region who will be affected by the inevitable, though dangerously slow, decline in the brown coal industry. In total, $5.5 billion is being given out to the corporations who own Australia’s heavily polluting power stations. Quit Coal argued that the money should go towards investing in a renewable energy manufacturing sector, focussing on creating jobs in areas that are currently dependent on coal. We are proud to support the Earthworker Cooperative, an organisiation that is actively building this alternative.
On Thursday, our two climbers managed a difficult ascent, battling a cascade of smelly water at the base of the cooling tower with a heavy load, and a scorching 37 degree summer day.
After climbing past the water at the base, security on the site brought in a cherry picker, attempting to pluck the pair off the tower and foil the protesters plans. The exhausted duo managed to make a panicked escape to higher grounds, out of reach of the mechanical arm of Yallourn security.
But their relief was momentary; a slicker larger machine was brought along side the action and began beeping in a menacing way. The climbers launched into another scramble up the wires. The frightening contraption slowly unfolded itself and approached the point where the climbers were attempting to haul up their supplies. In a moment of quick-witted desperation, Chloe slashed one of the ropes connecting the gear to the wire. The manoeuvre allowed Dom, who was 15 metres above her at this stage, to quickly pull the load up, while she rocketed up the other line. The machine was not up to the task and an exasperated police officer resorted to yelling through a megaphone, with an artful combination of threats and pleas. Despite his best attempts at psychological manipulation, the pair focused on climbing higher still, with Chloe also managing to release a small banner that stated “”$257 million to fund asthma, lung disease and extreme weather WTF…?!”
At this point, out of reach of the new cherry picker, they felt they could finally relax and form a plan for the evening.
Again, the moment was short lived, as an epic crane entered the site. It appeared that the battle was still on, and the fourth stage of the hectic ascent commenced.
After 20 long minutes, a phone call from the support crew confirmed that the search and rescue team had called the arms race to an end, declaring the climbers “too high to reach”. They promptly headed back to Melbourne, leaving the owners of the plant fuming.
At this stage it might have seemed as if the climber’s troubles were over, but an unexpected weather front closed in. The pair were left dangling on the wires, lashed by fierce winds swirling around the giant tower. There was a moment when they caught each others eyes, sharing the same look of terror, which seemed to say: “what the f#@k did we think we were doing”. They devised a rapid escape plan; a rope was rigged up to the wire allowing them to abseil down with speed. In the same instant as the evacuation line was fixed and ready to go, the winds backed off.
“Maybe we can wait this one out” Dom suggested, somewhat hesitantly.
The weather remained miserable, but the worst of the wind had passed and the two managed to pass the night, surviving constant dripping through the gaps in the tarp, the tragic loss of a sleeping bag through clumsiness and late night interviews from eager journalists.
They met the dawn of the following day wet, cold and under-slept, but still determined.
News in the morning of more bad weather to come, with possible thunder storms, shattered plans to drop a 21 metre long banner of a boiling thermometer, that read: “Government Funded Global Warming”, which would have been almost impossible to remove.
Nonetheless, despite this disappointment, the climbers decided it was important to climb to the top of the 120 metre tower (the police later informed us that if either of the other two towers had been occupied the entire facility would have been shut down – the cooling tower in question had a different safety status for reasons unknown). After three hours of climbing, Dom reached the top, unfurling a small banner with the words:
“Invest in Renewable Energy Jobs, Not Handouts for Polluters”.
By 5pm, after occupying the tower for around 30 hours, both Chloe and Dom descended voluntarily. Both were taken in divvy vans to the local station and locked in the holding cells. The police charged them with a number of offences including: trespass on critical infrastructure, affixing objects to critical infrastructure and behaving in a reckless manner that could shutdown critical infrastructure. The penalties for breaking these laws were drastically increased at in 2009 after a series of actions at Hazelwood. The fines and sentences are extremely harsh by international standards. They were designed as a barrier, stopping people concerned about catastrophic climate change and government inaction, from undertaking civil disobedience and direct action. The combined penalties could include fines of up to $45,000 and possible gaol time, although we are hoping that the latter is unlikely for Dom and Chloe and that the fines will be significantly less. A lot of equipment was also seized by the police as evidence, including climbing gear, backpacks, phones, a much-prized hammock and a number of other items. After three hours in the police station, initially severe and restrictive bail conditions were negotiated down, and they were allowed to leave. The pair were driven home; exhausted, but happy that they had taken the kind of action so many more of us should be undertaking.
It was the longest power station occupation in Australia’s history and the first time the amended critical infrastructure laws have been challenged.
We hope you will be also inspired to take action in keeping with the urgent need to address the threat of climate change and to fight for just solutions.
…and this song kept the climbers going while they were in the lock up