Controversy for historic gold mining town Castlemaine

Local residents at Victoria’s popular regional centre of Castlemaine, 120 kilometres north west of Melbourne, are deep in a fierce campaign to stop a bioenergy project from going ahead.

The Mount Alexander Bioenergy proposal is a toxic solution to environmental problems, say local residents. The facility would include two methods of generating energy from waste: a biodigester that uses wet material to produce biogas and a pyrolysis-gasifier that burns material to produce biochar and syngas. And it comes as a global push intensifies to ban toxics recycling.

Built in Castlemaine, an old gold fields town in Central Victoria, the proposed facility would provide waste and energy solutions for local businesses, especially the Don KR Castlemaine plant, and will be built on its land. 

Local residents have banded together to form Castlemaine Residents Against Biomass (CRAB). The group has more than a hundred members and is preparing to take out a class action should the project be approved.

“This is not clean or renewable energy, and would turn Castlemaine into a stinking, noisy, dumping ground for waste from Central Victoria,” says Lisa Pollard, a spokeswoman for CRAB. 

Mount Alexander Sustainability Group (MASG) is engaged to build the project. The group says it will create “renewable, clean energy while enabling one of the region’s larger industries [Don KR Castlemaine] to reduce its emissions by 88,500 tonnes a year”.

But that’s not how many locals see it.

“I am horrified that MASG, which promotes itself as a peak sustainability organisation and supporter of clean energy initiatives, is proposing to build a hazardous bioenergy facility with the addition of a biomass plant and wastewater polishing lagoon in the Castlemaine community without our consent,” Ms Pollard said. 

Residents reject all aspects of the proposal. They oppose:

  • the location 
  • the biodigester
  • the pyrolysis-gasifier


Now called Don KR Castlemaine and UK owned, the Castlemaine bacon factory was established and owned by a local family for generations. Although in an industrial zone, the plant is near homes, hospitals, schools, sports grounds, the swimming pool, and highly regarded tourist attractions such as the Mill precinct and the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens. 

The bioenergy facility will be built on unused land, currently owned by Don KR Castlemaine, that was regarded by locals as a buffer zone between the factory and places around it. 

Opposing residents state: “The proposed site location puts the local community, particularly the sick and elderly, at great risk in the event of fire, explosion, gas leaks, bushfires, and other extreme weather events.

“Biodigester plants which produce highly flammable methane gas and biomass thermal heat plants which burn dry waste at high temperature both have inherent safety risks. To put both of them together in one facility akin to a chemical processing plant therefore seems to be reckless in the extreme.  

“Who would take liability for any potentially catastrophic consequences of such risks, particularly given the site location nearby our hospital and residential homes?”

Botanic gardens, and threatened species

The site is also near the renowned Castlemaine Botanical Gardens, first gazetted in 1860, with many significant trees dating from that time and rare plants donated by the acclaimed government botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller.

In the north-west section of the gardens is the Flora and Fauna Reserve which has 98 indigenous flora species including the threatened late-flowering flax lily. Fauna species found there include kangaroos, black wallabies, powerful owls, brush-tailed phascogales, skinks, frogs, and the extremely endangered Eltham copper butterfly. 

Thought to be extinct, the butterfly was rediscovered in 1986. The reserve is one of the few places it is found. The Eltham copper butterfly relies solely on the sweet bursaria plant and Notoncus capitatusants to survive. The three species share a vital symbiosis which the butterfly can’t exist without, and which makes it such a rare species.

Castlemaine is home to the endangered Eltham copper butterfly. Image: Nillumbik Shire Council.

The biodigester

“We understand that the purpose of the wastewater polishing lagoon is to break down sewage sludge, pork fat (and even chicken waste from Hazeldenes in Bendigo) residues etc, before discharging it into the creek,” CRAB spokeswoman Lisa Pollard says. 

This is a ripe concoction, locals opposed to the scheme say.

Objecting residents say the odour from such a brew will be extremely unpleasant, and not something that anyone should have to experience on a daily basis. 

The proximity of Don KR Castlemaine to homes affected nearby residents when there was a hazardous ammonia leak at the plant in 2019. Some people evacuated their homes and residents were told to close all windows and doors, and stay inside.

Aside from concerns about odours, another perceived problem is the discharge of pollutants into the creek. This has previously occurred.

The Midland Express, dated 10 October, 2021, reported: “Charges laid against George Weston Foods Ltd by the Environment Protection Authority Victoria have resulted in a $100,000 boost for a local conservation group.

“EPA charged the company after a spill allowed untreated wastewater to flow into a nearby creek on February 19, 2019, at the company’s Don KR Castlemaine facility.

“George Weston Foods Ltd pleaded guilty in the Castlemaine Magistrates Court on 30 July, to two charges of polluting waters of an unnamed tributary of Campbells Creek and for breaching an EPA licence condition.

“The company was convicted and ordered to pay $100,000 to the Mount Alexander Sustainability Group Inc.”

The pyrolysis gasifier

The pyrolysis gasifier would create energy by burning waste. This proposal comes at a time when there is a global push to ban such facilities. The United Nations Environment Assembly is meeting from 28 February to 2 March to consider a treaty on plastic pollution.

The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) is demanding an end to hazardous plastic waste management … including banning toxics recycling, the use of plastic waste as fuel and incineration as a disposal method. 

Already, the burning of plastic waste has been banned in the Australian Capital Territory. ACT climate change minister Shane Rattenbury claimed the outcome was a win for the environment and the ACT’s sustainability reputation.

“There are cleaner, greener, and more efficient ways of managing our waste, than burning it. The last thing we need are the toxic emissions or greenhouse gases from burning waste in Canberra,” Rattenbury said.

“Burning residual waste is no better than burning dirty fossil fuels and does not allow us to achieve the maximum economic and environmental benefit from those resources.”

For those reasons the ACT government’s new waste policy states: “Thermal treatment of waste including incineration, gasification and pyrolysis will not be permitted in the ACT.”

Mount Alexander Sustainability Group did not respond to requests for information. 

The Mount Alexander Biomass project awaits approval by the EPA.

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  1. Rollinson, Andrew. (2018). Fire, explosion and chemical toxicity hazards of gasification energy from waste. Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries. 54. 10.1016/j.jlp.2018.04.010. Abstract

    “In recent years there have been an increasing number of attempts to develop commercial-scale gasification of municipal solid waste. The results have been widely disappointing, with many high profile and often catastrophic failures. The causes and analyses of these process failures remain inadequately reported in peer-reviewed literature. This paper identifies and discusses these hazards in the context of modern preferences, using case studies and historic antecedents to explore the engineering challenges which underpin loss prevention in the gasification energy from waste sector. It shows that there are many hazards: flammable, toxic, and corrosive gas mixtures, the auto-ignition of stored feedstocks, multiple explosive atmospheres due to both overpressure and under pressure combined with many ignition sources, plus heightened risk at times of start-up, shut-down or during testing. It also identifies how risk is heightened by preferences for novelty, lack of stakeholder understanding, a desire to operate at high outputs, and a reluctance to learn from history.”

    Funnily enough, Mount Alexander Sustainability Group has never asked us if we wanted such a hazardous and dirty facility in our town let alone in such an inappropriate location.

    1. We’re hoping to hear more from MASG soon as they did not return emailed queries at the time we published this story but have made contact since, with assurances they will give us their views.

  2. Bioenergy aka waste to energy is not clean, not renewable and to claim it contributes towards a circular economy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions is greenwash. I would have expected a self-proclaimed sustainability group to know all this unless it is motivated by the cash inflow from its main sponsor which just happens to be the beneficiary of the energy produced by the proposed facility.

  3. Incineration of mixed waste like this with plastic is not good, gasification is a bit better because the material is heated in limited oxygen which means less pollution but pyrolysis is simply heating the material with no oxygen? It separates into heat and gas, bio-oil, and solid material that could be used as a recycled fossil fuel-based carbon black material with all sorts of applications that would be a carbon sink, i.e. not returning to the atmosphere. The emissions coming out of the stack of advanced technology meets EPA guidelines. I don’t get what all the fuss is about from CRAB?

  4. OK, what to do with the exorbitant amount of rubbish we produce . If it is buried in landfill it is leaving a problem for future generations. Shipping it overseas is worse. If it is burnt it is a problem for the generation that made that waste which seems the fairer option. However setting up the plant to burn waste for power means that we might miss the opportunity to use some process that converts waste into reusable products.

    1. Look at the waste hierarchy. Waste to energy is one of the least preferred options for dealing with waste. Not one of the political parties supports waste to energy. Read the greens paper on greenwashing; includes gasification & pyrolysis.

  5. If terms such as gasification and pyrolysis are used, please explain to the horrified uninformed reader at least that pyrolysis is decomposition ‘in the absence of oxygen’. Burning, here linked to plastics, is the exothermic oxidation of materials containing carbon or other elements that combine with oxygen in the process. The decomposition by prolysis of plastics [typically long chain stable compounds into short chain HC molecules as plastics feedstock ] is a useful tool in a circular economy. No, its not all smiles and roses, needs to have emission control sorted out, but its a darned sight better than current practice.