Life on the Line: Residents and unionists unite to stop Stonehaven Power Station

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An unusual campsite sits 8 kilometres from Geelong in the middle of golden fields and beside a yellow dirt road. The campers — set up with a caravan and tents — are here for the long haul. The protesters recently celebrated the 200th day of their community picket, which was established in December 2001. The area is known as Stonehaven, and it is a group of dedicated people who staff the picket line 24 hours a day. Their camping ground is opposite the entrance to a 1,200-acre paddock with massive power lines overhead and a gas pipeline underneath.

This is the site for the proposed $200 million AES gas-fired power plant which the Bracks Government aims to force onto the community of Geelong without consultation or an Environmental Effects Statement.

At public meetings held in August last year, over 900 people objected to the building of the power station.  The company plans to use outdated and inefficient technology. The result would be increased pollution, along with the squandering of natural resources such as gas and further depletion of the region’s scarce water supply. Three years of continuous water restrictions were lifted just this year.

The Stonehaven plant is designed to provide peak load power during periods of high demand, such as heat waves, and in low supply times, including strikes or failures at other plants. The plant would generate electricity by drawing air through a compressor. Natural gas would be burned to heat the air, and the hot compressed air would then pass across a turbine which would drive an electrical generator. The proposed power station would be fuelled primarily by gas, but during gas supply shortages it would use liquid fuel — low sulphur diesel or kerosene — which will be trucked from the Geelong refinery and stored on site.

The tenacious objectors are playing a waiting game — waiting for the building work to begin. The group is also hopeful that the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union will support the Electrical Trades Union’s green ban on the plant.

They have workshops planned in preparation for when their picket line needs to swing into direct action. The workshops cover community rights, legal issues, picket tactics and strategies for blockading.

Darren Aitken, one of the picketers explains: “We are a varied bunch and some people have different cutoff points. We’re talking about blockading, site invasion and lock-ons to machinery. We need to know whether people are a link-arm blockader or whether they are a lie-down-in-front-of-machinery type of person, or stand-in-the-middle-of-the-road type of person. But obviously we are hoping it doesn’t get to anywhere near that. We are hoping they will pull out before that stage. But I’m determined to stop it, even if it means getting arrested. It’s another multinational owning a chunk of what should be a government-owned essential service.”

Another picketer, Sue Kelly-Turner, has lived at the site since the Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal decision gave the go-ahead for the plant on December 13. She has been joined by many local residents on rotational shifts. Inside the caravan, taped to the ceiling, is a list of more than 160 mobile phone numbers. They are contacts for people willing to drop everything to join the army of volunteers at any sign of moves by AES to begin construction.

The caravan is environmentally friendly. Its solar power — thanks to a generous local donation — runs a laptop computer and keeps the mobile phones charged. Next to the caravan is a garden growing a variety of vegetables.

Darren said that the site is never unstaffed. Sue commented, “If we want the unions to support us, we have to demonstrate that we are fair dinkum. But it’s also a community building exercise. If people are going to stand on a picket line together, they have got to develop respect and trust for each other.”

The company that wants to build the Stonehaven plant, AES Corporation, is waiting to see whether the collapse of U.S. energy giant Enron will put a dampener on its plans to have the plant operational this year. The bankruptcy of the seventh largest corporation in the U.S., and the sixteenth largest in the world, may affect funding sources for AES. Director Jerry McBrein said the collapse could send jitters to banks lending money to power companies. However, the company was going ahead with plans to have the plant up and running later this year, and contracts are currently being finalised.

The Stonehaven picketers are hoping that the company will not get the funding, especially as the project is already six months behind schedule. But they will not abandon the site, even if AES pulls out — the farmland has been bought by the Golden Plains Shire, and another company could take over the ill-conceived project.

In the meantime, life goes on. The group has celebrated birthdays, the birth of a litter of puppies and Christmas and seen in the New Year at the isolated site. They sit and wait, talk to the media, formulate alternative, greener energy plans and educate visitors about why the proposed power plant must be stopped.

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