On Monday last week, Ric Stowe’s private Griffin Group released a statement claiming success for an experiment to reduce salinity levels at Wellington Dam.
It was a very low-key event. Apart from a brief mention in WA Business News’ online news coverage, the announcement appears to have been overlooked by major media.
Following up on the news, a spokesman for Griffin said the success of the two-year trial, undertaken with the Department of Water and Harvey Water, was a mixed blessing.
This was, he said, primarily because the excavated pit used to collect the diverted first, highly saline, flush of the East Collie River was full, and no-one seemed to know what would happen next.
So what happened the next day was quite a surprise.
Federal Labor made an election promise committing $10 million to fund half of a new desalination plant to boost the diversion of between two billion litres and five billion litres of water.
It was a key part of a $95 million campaign promise by Labor’s water spokesman, Anthony Albanese, to Western Australia, a key state in the forthcoming poll.
WA Water Resources Minister John Kobelke, who is in receipt of the Kelly report proposing a desalination plant down there, welcomed the news.
A spokesman for Mr Kobelke said the Albanese promise would expedite the project for completion in about two years’ time.
While Mr Kobelke did not use his announcement to outline specifically how such a desalination proposal would work, his office made it clear that it involved diverted water from mine voids, which could then be used for industrial purposes.
That must be good news for Griffin, which was not only involved in the diversion trial, but already proposed its own desalination plant, independent of the recent experiment.
With a Labor election win predicted, there would be at least $10 million promised to the Department of Water to potentially get one of its pet projects moving.
Of course, behind the scenes, everyone seems to think the project is much bigger than the announced $20 million, which gets you a piddlingly small plant compared with big state projects at Kwinana and Binningup.
Something like $30 million is already committed for saltwater diversion and a preliminary proposal to build a 14 gigilitres a year plant was estimated at $70 million in capital cost.
Griffin, for those who may not know, is one of WA’s biggest private companies, yet it flies under the radar a great deal of the time.
It is owned by the reclusive Monaco-based Ric Stowe, whose public appearances have been scant and largely seemed linked to the company’s need to gain attention for its position on issues such as energy.
Behind the scenes it has employed controversial lobbyist Julian Grill, business partner of even more controversial ex-premier Brian Burke. Mr Grill lobbied at an early stage for Griffin with regard to desalination proposals for Wellington Dam but has been off the team for at least 18 months since the Corruption and Crime Commission heat was applied in full.
Given the stink around Mr Burke and Mr Grill created by the CCC’s investigations, it seems highly unlikely that any decision could be made under their direct influence.
And, given the problems Mr Burke created for Labor leader Kevin Rudd earlier this year, it also would be fairly safe to assume that anything coming out of WA would have been vetted closely to make sure there was no chance that WA Inc egg could end up smearing the Kevin 07 campaign.
Of course, the federal Labor and state government statements don’t name Griffin, however its position as a local miner, not to mention its long-term work in this field, makes it a strong contender from the outset.
There is at least one other proponent of a desalination plant in the area.
Agritech Smartwater has proposed that a gravity powered reverse osmosis plant below Wellington Dam could take the saline water in the dam and produce potable water.
It is understood Griffin’s original proposal was also focused on desalinating water already in Wellington Dam but the experiment with the diversion to its mine voids has led it to consider tackling that highly saline water as an alternative.
That could then be available for its Bluewaters power stations, which need big quantities of water. The waste water could then be run out to sea through pipes already used by the Muja power stations close by.
Muja already uses water from mining operations in the area.
There is also the second big desalination plant at Binningup that’s relatively close by. It could, conceivably, use Wellington Dam water or water diverted from the dam catchment, which would be much less energy intensive to process than sea water.
Just what the terms of any deal with a private group would be, if that path were taken, is unclear. Private companies just aren’t in the water business in WA and water rights are closely held by the state.
Even though the project is to be relatively small, any deal that had a private player processing water to be put back into the system would signal a major change in the WA water sector.
Griffin is thought to be keen on development in this area for that reason. As a major future player in the power generation game, it is right to be concerned about water.
Desalination allows it to solve that problem, and appear green at the same time.
And desalination of water flowing in or out of Wellington Dam might be also good for all of us.
It’s a pity there isn’t more concrete information on what is proposed, especially with federal Labor making campaign promises worth millions.