A south-west Victorian airport instrumental in fighting the St Patrick’s Day bushfires could be forced to close if a proposed wind farm is approved by the state planning minister.
The $100 million Naroghid Wind Farm project plans to build 12 wind turbines on the outskirts of Cobden, seven kilometres south-east of Camperdown.
According to those who run the airstrip, the location is a problem.
Part of the farm’s proposed site borders the northern edge of the Cobden Airport, with four of the 180-metre-high towers to be built within kilometres of the start of the runway.
“Where the wind towers are proposed there’s a very real risk of a collision – either taking off or landing from the north,” Cobden Aero Club secretary Bill Woodmason said.
“We’d only be able to operate to the southern side of the runway. We see that as a real safety issue.
“If the proposal goes ahead in its current form, it will more than likely mean the closure of the airfield.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Corangamite Shire mayor, Jo Beard.
The shire runs the facility, which is used by private planes, agricultural crop dusting services and most recently by the CFA in the battle against last week’s bushfires and resulting peat smoulder.
“Council is supportive of wind farms – we just need them in sensible areas,” Cr Beard said.
“At the end of the day you have to talk to the pilots and if they’re saying it’s not safe, we have to listen.”
Design approval process
The Naroghid Wind Farm proposal has been more than 10 years in the making, and was taken over by Hong Kong-owned power company Alinta Energy in 2017.
In a statement, the company said the plan complied with all aero safety requirements.
“As part of the design and approval process for the wind farm, an Aviation Impact Assessment was undertaken by a recognised aviation expert and its design was subsequently amended and one turbine was removed,” a spokesperson said.
“The project has recently completed a public feedback process and we believe the current proposal complies with all relevant regulatory requirements.”
State government planning requirements require any company that wants to build a wind farm with towers more than 110 metres high within 30 kilometres of an airfield needs to consult with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) – a regulation Alinta said it had complied with.
National windfarm commissioner Andrew Dyer has received several submissions from Cobden locals concerned about the project, and said all planning requirements should be independently audited to ensure compliance.
“There was sufficient concern to warrant me to go down and see what was going on,” Mr Dyer said of the proposal.
“I’ve had discussions with the department of planning here in Victoria.
“The minister was welcoming of my suggestions and I’m sure he’s considering them as he works on his process.”
Air ambulance helicopter
Cobden resident Daniel Beard said he knows first-hand how important the air strip is.
The husband of the Corangamite mayor, he was transported to Melbourne via air ambulance from Cobden 20 years ago after suffering extensive injures in a fatal crash along the Great Ocean Road.
“This airport saved my life,” he said.
“I was told afterwards by the surgeons that upon getting to Melbourne my body was shutting down – I was within minutes of not being here.”
Cr Beard said it sent a shiver down her spine to think what might have been.
“If he didn’t have that aircraft (transportation) he wouldn’t be my husband and he certainly wouldn’t be the father of my two boys,” she said.
However, Air Ambulance Victoria acting manager air operations Bradley Martin said the proposed changes would not affect its operations.
“Air Ambulance Victoria will only utilise the Cobden airstrip on rare occasions and is unable to utilise the airstrip during night-time conditions,” he said.
“In most instances, the air ambulance helicopter lands at the Cobden sports oval instead of the Cobden airstrip.
Forced to relocate business
“The introduction of wind turbines to the north of the Cobden airstrip would have no effect on our operations.”
The mayor acknowledged that emergency services helicopters could potentially still service the area, but suggested that without commercial tenants the airstrip may not be a viable financial proposition for the council.
One pilot, who did not wish to be named, said he would be forced to relocate his business and face the loss of an $80,000 hanger if the airport closed.
The state minister for planning Richard Wynne has the final say on the proposed farm and a ruling is expected in the coming weeks.
The minister refused an interview with the ABC, instead providing a statement.
“The minister is aware of the community’s concerns over aircraft safety and emergency services accessibility, especially given the devastating fires the community has recently had to endure,” the statement read.
“These concerns will be a primary factor when the minister makes his ruling.”
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