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Desal plant a $570m-a-year drain

Published: The Age 17-Sep-10

Author: Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders

VICTORIANS will pay an average $570 million a year for the next three decades to have the southern hemisphere's largest desalination plant - even if no water is needed.

Detail buried in a barrage of reports tabled in Parliament on Wednesday contained highly sensitive figures that the Brumby government has fought to keep secret: the real cost of the massive Wonthaggi plant, one of the largest public-private partnerships undertaken worldwide.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment report shows that in cash or nominal terms taxpayers will pay at least $15.8 billion to the Aquasure Consortium to operate and maintain the plant for 28 years after it begins operation at the end of 2011.

According to the government's calculations, the so-called water security payment is equivalent in today's dollars to $4.6 billion. In all, the government says the plant will cost $5.7 billion in today's money for the construction and operation of the site.

Revelation of the payments comes at a difficult time for the government in a surprisingly wet election year that has allowed it to ease water restrictions but raised tricky questions about the cost of major water projects including desalination and the contentious north-south pipeline.

Now, with reservoirs filling and taxpayers liable for hundreds of millions of dollars a year to pay for desalination, doubters both without and within government are questioning whether the plant was a costly overreaction to Melbourne's water woes.

Last night Nationals leader Peter Ryan seized on the figures and demanded answers from the government. ''On the face of it this is a staggering obligation to which Melbourne Water ratepayers have been committed by John Brumby,'' he said.

He concluded that each year, on average, every Melbourne water ratepayer would pay $345. ''John Brumby has in effect signed up every household and business in Melbourne to a debt which averages about $9560. John Brumby must come clean. He has consistently refused to tell Victorians the magnitude of what he has done.''

After denouncing at the last election the opposition's plans for a desal plant one-third the size, Labor backflipped in mid-2007 as drought gripped the state and announced that Victoria needed a plant to avert a water disaster.

This week in Parliament Premier Brumby on Wednesday again refused to answer questions about the water security payment after Mr Ryan asked if it was in excess of $300 million a year, even if no water was delivered.

''When you build any capital project you have a stream of payments,'' Mr Brumby said.

''It is no different whether you buy a farm or you borrow $1 million to buy a house, you have a stream of payments that are associated with that. So it is with the desalination plant.''

Mr Brumby said the bid for the Wonthaggi plant ''went out to tender amongst some of the biggest and most effective and successful companies in the world. They bid for it; we chose the lowest price.''

In June Aquasure chairwoman Chloe Munro, when addressing a parliamentary committee, also would not say how large the payment was.

''The water security payment is an annual payment that is there because it recognises that the plant is being maintained to be in a condition capable of delivering water at any time,'' she said.

Ms Munro said the payment did not represent Aquasure's actual maintenance costs and said it was determined by a ''complex formula to arrive at that for each year and it allows for the passage of time and so forth''.

The project has been hit by bad weather and complaints from some local residents.

The Age reported in late August that construction of the plant was as much as three months behind schedule due to heavy rain and unforseen environmental problems.

Last month a senior government insider have told The Age that with hindsight the government would not opt for such a big desalination plant.

Among the investors in the project are an HSBC fund, Korean banks, a Japanese trading company, a subsidiary of French utility giant Suez Environnement and Australian investors Macquarie, Thiess and UniSuper.

More than 30 international and domestic banks are providing financing for the heavily geared project.


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