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Greens reintroduce Bill to scrap Alcoa's FOI exemption

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
27 May 2015

Two weeks ago, Alcoa announced that its coal mine and power plant at Anglesea will close its doors. The community is now wondering how the mine will be rehabilitated, to ensure it’s safe and the environment is protected. Unfortunately, Alcoa is still exempt from Freedom of Information laws, which means the community has no right to ask questions and receive answers about Alcoa’s rehabilitation plans. That’s why this week the Greens have reintroduced a bill to end Alcoa’s exemption from FOI laws.

Currently in law, any document relating to Alcoa’s aluminium smelters, or anything relating to the smelters, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act 1982. This means documents relating to the Anglesea mine and the power station - which were built to power the smelter - are still exempt, even though the smelter has closed.

The original justification for this special treatment was to protect commercial agreements and trade secrets. But in actual fact, the exemption has been used to withhold information relating to the health and environmental costs of Alcoa’s Anglesea coal mine and power plant. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Authority refused access to an air emissions study and human health risk assessment related to the Angelsea coal mine and power station on the basis of this exemption.

This exemption from the basic requirements of transparency and good governance is totally unjustified, and harms the community. Commercial and trade secrets are already protected under Freedom of Information laws. All this exemption does is offer Alcoa a licence to pollute in secret, while the community continues to breathe contaminated air and suffer the consequences of long-term environmental pollution.

That’s why the Greens have reintroduced our Bill this week to remove Alcoa’s FoI exemption.

Why is this important now?

On May 12, Alcoa announced that the coalmine and power station at Anglesea would close in August. It is now the company’s responsibility to rehabilitate the site. Last week, Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said that Alcoa had committed to ensuring full rehabilitation of the Anglesea site, and that they intend to restore it to as close to original condition as possible.

Alcoa’s social licence for the Anglesea plant is in tatters, thanks to a strong community campaign that has widely publicised the toxic impacts of the plant, which is less than 1km from the local primary school.

Having profited hugely from the Anglesea mine and power station, it is only fair that Alcoa foots the bill for rehabilitation of the site, and takes full responsibility for restoring it for the community. But how can we be sure that they will do so, if they can still hide behind an outdated and unjustifiable FOI exemption? It’s clear that public perception is important to Alcoa. Being able to scrutinise their plans and actions as the clean-up happens in Anglesea is essential for the public to hold them to account, and to make sure the site is fully rehabilitated.

The Greens originally introduced this amendment in 2012, but it was voted down by the then-Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition. With the recent announcement that the power station will close this year, now is the time to put it back on the table. And we hope that this time, Labor and the Coalition will do the right thing by the community, and vote to pass the Greens’ amendment.

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
27 May 2015
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