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THE WATER MUST COME FROM SOMEWHERE

Selling electricity, Luke knocks at the front door. He wants to enter my home. I say, “No.” He insists, “the price is right.” I have no answer, yet still send him away. I’m left thinking how electricity relies on ample water supply. The water is becoming scarce and in deep trouble.
Edward Hopkins

Writing at my home office desk I hear a knock at the front door. A young adult male appears on the verandah dressed in a neat uniform. The logotype brand of his company appears across on his shirt pocket. He introduces himself by pointing to the company name and says ‘we’ sell electricity. His adds, “I am Luke”.

On several occasions before hand, at the door I had greeted representatives from companies with different names who also sold electricity. Each has a similar story; an offer of cheaper electricity prices than the current provider. Each says they are ‘based’ in Australia and each says they are different to current provider. Luke is the most insistent I have experienced.

He wants to know who is my current provider.

“Why”, I ask?

He replies, “So I can see how much you are currently paying and show how much less you will pay with my company.”

He is equipped with dagger-like questions and answers. I am a pesky, unreceptive homeowner under attack. Instead of telling him to piss off then, I hedge, making the mistake of saying I’m unsure who the provider is.

Immediately he says, “If you let me into the house and show me your electricity bills I can tell you who it is and how much you can save with us.”

“No, you cannot come into my home,” I say.

“Why”, asks Luke?

“I don’t want to change my supplier,” I say.

Luke asks, “Why don’t you want to change if you can get a better price?”

I had no answer for him.

But I held my ground. I sent him away.

As a private homeowner it is my entitlement to do so. Nevertheless, he had left me with an unwanted taste, the insinuation of I am against change at the right price. His company is adroit at intruding into the home-space. Luke did not make the sale, but he soon will, next door, or the next. His company is intrusive.

Was Luke’s effect on me because I saw him as a contemporary version of my dad?

Perhaps.

As a kid growing up in the Latrobe Valley mining and power generation region, all around me was modern with lots of sporting ovals and new houses and cars and babies springing up. There were also lots of nearby paddocks, bushland, and mountain ranges for us kids to be on our own sans oldies. Among the many stories the Hopkins children were told is how dad as a teenager was destitute during the Great Depression and became a door-to-door salesman.

He never provided much detail. It was left to mum to describe the damage that had occurred to him during the economic depression years that ruined his family. But she could never say what he sold to the ‘Lady of the House.’ Kitchen utensils? Garments? Jewellery? Cleaning apparatus? I’m guessing there was some sense of shame.

Luke, as had my dad in other era, appeared as a stranger knocking on the door wanting to sell something. Luke appeared bright and motivated, which is similar to how I see dad. Luke may have also been financially stressed and signed up for the job because there was no alternative.

Dad had sold artifacts. Luke sells a commodity – electricity. It’s a commodity that relies on ample supply of water.

Even at an early age, I saw my dad as a modernist adventurer, while my mum tried to keep up as best she could. During the World War years he and mum had moved to Moe, near the State Electricity Commission’s (SEC) base at Yallourn.

While dad told everyone he was rejected from enlisting to fight in the war because of his “flat feet”; much later, what mum said was closer to the mark. His job at the SEC meant the classification of required worker in an industry deemed essential for the war effort.

Dad was not a warmonger type. His passion for modern inventiveness was never weaponry. Rather, business enterprise, public utility, sport, speedboats, and home improvements were his go.

Soon after the War, he decided to leave his job at the power station and set up, with mum’s help, a dry cleaning business in the back shed of our Moe home. Dry cleaning, I learnt as a kid, was something the Yanks did, was new to Moe and was starting to pop in other places around Australia.

At the time, establishing one of Australia’s first dry cleaning businesses was ambitious and ultra modern. The early dry cleaning required using considerable volumes of the highly inflammable transparent liquid called, White Spirit. I recall us children being told to go inside the house when dad and his mates rolled 44 gallon drums of White Spirit up the driveway to the backyard.

Our neighbours were also on edge.

In another backyard shed, in his spare time my dad built speedboats. Mucking around on a towrope behind the family outboard runabout he built is how I learnt to water ski. By the age of fifteen I had won the Junior National Water Ski Championship in 1963 and 1964, and by the age of sixteen was competing with senior world champions at the prestigious Moomba Masters International Tournament on the Yarra River in Melbourne. I finished third in the Men’s Slalom event.

Also at sixteen years of age, the other sport I excelled at was Australian Rules Football. Still at Moe High School, I was selected for the Moe Seniors and was kicking goals for my hometown team in the Latrobe Valley League. My exploits were noticed further afield. In my final year of schooling I was recruited to play for Carton in the Victorian Football League. In 1970 I became a premiership hero kicking four match winning goals in the second half.

When I went to live in Melbourne and play football, I also completed a university degree in economics and politics from the newly established Monash University, located in the burgeoning southeastern suburb of Clayton. The university was named after General Sir John Monash GCMG, KCB, VD (27 June 1865 – 8 October 1931) a civil engineer who became the Australian military commander in the First World War.

I was already familiar with the name. My dad had said Monash was a modern hero – Australia’s greatest wartime leader and the bloke who was the first boss of the SEC. In addition to the wartime leadership and engineering feats, dad was also fond of mentioning Monash’s achievements in various civic duties and business enterprises.

When dad left the SEC to start up the family backyard dry-cleaning business he became a member of the local Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. Monash who was a founding member of the Rotary Club of Melbourne, Australia’s first Rotary Club, and second president (1922–23).

The initial backyard dry-business was called Leslie’s Dry Cleaners, after dad’s first name, Leslie. When the business outgrew the backyard, the Hopkins family opened a dry-cleaning shop in Moe’s commercial centre. With considerable fanfare, it was given a new name – Civic Dry Cleaners.

Dad saw a picture of the Latrobe Valley coal mining and power stations as if it were a post-card. At the heart of the region stood a grand engineering marvel: a fuel tank supplying energy for the thriving modern enterprise elsewhere. The fuel tank in this picture had merged within an Arcadian hinterland bordered by the Victorian Alps to the north and Strzelecki Ranges to the south. The valley region stretched from Warrigul in the west to the Gippsland Lakes to the east.

At school, representatives often visited us from the SEC who showed us pictures and presented materials explaining the scale, workings and benefits of coal fired power generation. The giant dredges were a favourite. Any visitors from afar to our home, nearly always the first activity was taking them for the short drive from Moe to Yallourn for a close up view of the mighty power station beside the Latrobe River. Next was the drive up to the nearby Coaches Road hilltop for a panoramic view of the open cut mines consuming vast tracts of land.

At that time, the idea the mines and power stations were owned by overseas private companies and not owned publicly by the State government was unimaginable. There was never any talk about the environment. Mum did say hanging the washing on the line outside was a nightmare. Blackberries and rabbits were everywhere; which was good news for us hungry boys who devoured the berries in summer and liked nothing better than ferreting with mates and dads on the weekend.

In 1971, at the age of 21 I retired from competing in elite sport. At the time, there were several reasons why I opted out of a promising career. In hindsight, I feel much of it has to do with searching for the source of that early loneliness that had dogged me since childhood. While living in Melbourne, many of the visits to the homeland included a drive to the hilltop view reflecting on what I could now see and explain.

From this platform you can see, not far to the north, the course of the Latrobe River running from west to east. The river is the source of the Yallourn Storage Dam – later renamed Lake Narracan – a substantial body of fresh water built to supply cooling water for the electricity generators at the nearby power station downstream.

The dam is where most of my water skiing training occurred. Where as a teenager, I first attempted to set an Australian water ski speed record. And the dam is where a species of European Carp introduced to Australia by a local fish farmer escaped to, thrived, and then began invading the inland waterways of southeastern Australia including the Murray – Darling River basin.

Most of my time skiing was spent dunked in the water wearing a lifejacket with my head bobbing above the surface waiting for the boat to return and getting ready to re-launch. And even more time was spent at the water’s edge preparing to ski. Afterwards, toweling off and preparing for the next go.

As a skier suspended so long in water and at its edge I began to sense changes occurring beyond familiar wave effects, current, tide, backwash, and undertow. I began noticing intrusions such as bank erosion caused by boat wakes, oil slicks, rubbish and weeds infesting waterways. And noise. The further afield I went in search of tranquil water for training purposes, I could still see signs of feral degradation. The dam water had since acquired the taste of carp.

The species has a high tolerance for less oxygenated water than native fish. They suck food from the bottom along with water and mud, filtering it out with gill rakers. Even in stagnant water carp can grow in excess of a metre. In Australia, they have no natural predators. Native fish shun them.

A Government Primary Industry bulletin warns how ‘carp contribute to poor water quality by uprooting vegetation and stirring up sediments during feeding, leading to increased turbidity’. And how, ‘they can migrate to and from breeding grounds during the breeding season, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres’.

Like carp, open cut mining and power generation are hungry for water. In constant search. The water must come from somewhere. It does. From the northern Alps, feeding the Yallourn Storage Dam are the Latrobe and Tanjil rivers. From the southern ranges, the Moe River and Narracan Creek. After the dam’s water is ingested by the mining operations and power generators it reappears as vapour above the giant cooling towers, or as boiled and lifeless water dispersed downstream, or as sludge.

Hidden from public view, sludge (a toxic mix of water, furnace ash, and chemicals) is piped to the northern side of the river into the disused Yallourn North Open Cut mine. A few kilometres long and one wide, a deep crater lies at the centre. The disused mine site is surrounded by bush land and planted pines behind a perimeter high-wire security fence.

The two syllabic name of Monash – Mon & Ash – describes the benefits and the dangers of the modern enterprise founded on profit and public utility. Mon reflects the modern dictum that more and more can be gained from less. To do so always implies some form of collateral damage that somehow has to be managed and contained – Ash.

Civil society has come to depend on checkpoints that keep the unwanted feral behaviour at bay. In sporting terms, to respect the integrity of a code’s rules and guidelines, a hierarchy of familiar punishments are aimed at containing feral behaviour. For example, a whistle is blown and a penalty awarded. If it persists a whistle, a penalty, and a yellow card warning is issued. If it threatens the integrity of the game the player is shown the red card and sin-binned.

Dad stood proud of the SEC’s achievements – its capacity to mine coal, generate electricity, distribute it to homes and commercial sites, and then send a bill. Back then, there was no doubt who owned the mine, generators, and who took responsibility for the distribution and sale of the commodity. Its job was to also dispose of the unwanted, dangerous by-products. Accordingly, scale, prestige, design, architecture, and engineering output became desirable measuring sticks.

It was a man’s business, which is how Civic Dry Cleaners stood in the Moe shopping centre.

While Luke’s world is modern there are now additional layers before anyone can weigh his offer. His company is privately owned and has purchased a retail license to sell electricity to homes and commercial sites. It owns a computer billing system. His company is one of several private retail companies also selling electricity. Other than retailing, all it does is buy electricity from a wholesale distributor that is also a private company that has purchased the rights to distribute and wholesale electricity.

The wholesale purchase price it sets is the same for all the retail franchisees. I could go further, trying to unravel the layers between the wholesaler and the price they receive from the private company franchisees who own the rights to operate the power stations and mines leased to them by the State Of Victoria, but will stop here.

Luke has said it all at my front door as he attempted to intrude into my home space. The familiar measuring sticks of dad’s modern vision no longer apply. Luke takes us into a labyrinth with only one way out. Go online. Watch more television. The Price Is Right. How can I know there is no trick? Am I being sold the dummy?

Regulators, Ombudsman, Watchdogs are installed to monitor compliance breaches. Each is a technician skilled in policy, rules, guidelines, and Power Point presentations. They act as public adjudicators, making recommendations designed to stamp out feral behaviour. In practice, these functions get emptied. By nature they are reactive agents, mostly under-resourced and often required to second-guess. Each plays a catch-up game chasing a tail. Even mining companies agree that coal seam gas mining is an extreme form of mining. All else is hidden from view.

In addition to the conventional open cut mines throughout the Latrobe Valley Region, there are plans to start mining coal seam gas from the surrounding landscape. From atop the Coaches Road hilltop, there is an area marked for coal seam gas mining that extends hundreds of kilometres east and west. This stretch lies between the Alps to the north, and Bass Strait coastline to the south.

Often called ‘fracking’, wellheads populate a landscape, drilling deep shafts. A fluid comprising water and chemicals is injected into the earth’s crust searching for sub-structural coal veins. The combination of water pressure and chemical releases gas to the earth’s surface where it is contained, then sold as an alternative to burning coal. The treated water is also brought to the surface. This toxic mixture is held in open ponds or transported elsewhere. For how long: and where it is seldom known.

The fear is an intrusion that cannot be contained.

I’m giving Luke’s company a yellow card. The company, along with fellow sole retailers of electricity are guilty of getting unfairly in my face; knocking at my front door, constant telephone calls, arriving in my mailbox, inbox, and text message stream. Luke says his company can kick more goals, jump further, without explaining how the electricity is supplied and its real cost to the public. The claim is disingenuous, which never goes well in sport, and worth an extra ping.

In younger days I became an elite water skier and footballer. I understand the water must come from somewhere. Football is a team game. Ego and anger are inevitable on the sporting field, but they must also be curbed for the benefit of the game.

For similar and different reasons I am giving a red card to the coal seam gas companies, and also sending them to the tribunal for a potential ban, or conditional reprieve.

The opponent who makes themselves invisible is not welcome. I need to see who they are and what they do for a fair chance. There are rumours these companies are injecting questionable substances into the earth’s crust and underground water table. Dubious money is said to change hands. It is incumbent on them to explain, before an open and fair adjudication panel, the impact of their behaviour above and below ground, not behind closed doors or via fancy Power Point presentations.

I am reminded of my earlier days learning to water ski on the Yallourn Storage Dam constantly dunked and gulping water. Later the dam was renamed Lake Narracan and by this time it had acquired the taste of European Carp. The local fish farmer who imported the species for cultivation assured authorities there was no risk the fingerlings could ever escape his secured ponds and subsequently, unbeknown, then invade the waterways of an eastern continent. Which is how the noxious takes hold. No one saw it coming. No one asked; how feral is it? No one blew the whistle.

Comments

Nina Burke

Nina Burke

A beautifully told story, Edward (Ted) Hopkins, thank you. So many threads entwined. Let’s hope there is a “getting of wisdom” by those that make decisions relating to the future direction of the Latrobe Valley. Let’s hope there is a ‘learning’ from how interconnected things are. What happens here has wide implications.
A ‘Yellow Card’ or ‘Red’ ? How feral is it? GOOD QUESTIONS

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cheryl wragg

cheryl wragg

What a great piece this is! Well done, Edward Hopkins. We need more writing like this about the Latrobe Valley telling our story, explaining, examining and connecting that what happens here doesn’t just stay here.

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