If you’ve never blissed out in a hot springs, you haven’t given yourselves the ultimate pampering, some say. Bandicoot’s family, Isoodon obesulus obesulus, is aquaphobic: we may groom, like cats: we don’t generally bathe.

On the Mornington Peninsula we have plenty of hot water right under our feet – witness the very popular Peninsula Hot Springs. Below us are great aquifers, waiting to be tapped for more than just a good pamper. The water can heat and, by clever science, cool, houses, shopping centres, factories and even swimming pools.

And will do all this, one day soon, as prices for electricity and gas continue to rocket. Imagine the savings at this time of the year!

st and-1“Hot water” of the legal variety is currently immersing Peninsula Hot Springs, Southern Rural Water and a nearby Fingal golf course at VCAT, the planning tribunal.

The applicant in the case is the St Andrews Beach Country Golf Course Pty Ltd, which is about a kilometre away from Peninsula Hot Springs Pty Ltd, which (to quote VCAT deputy president Mark Dwyer) “operates a thermal bathing facility”. For this it holds a licence from Southern Rural Water, “to take and use … geothermal water drawn from a deep aquifer”.

St Andrews is concerned about how Peninsula Hot Springs – let’s call it PHS for brevity – “disposes of the extracted geothermal water, including disposal via infiltration ponds in a manner that may cause pollution, rather than via reinjection to the deep aquifer”, Mr Dwyer writes in his order of 23 June.

“St Andrews also has aspirations to obtain a water licence to operate its own thermal bathing facility.”

Peninsula-Hot-Springs---bamboo-waterfall-pool-2Bandicoot loves a thickening plot – but this is just the start.

In two related VCAT proceedings, PHS is seeking to increase the amount of water it can dispose of “without reinjection to the deep aquifer” and to extend its water licence over additional land.

In those proceedings St Andrews has tried to express its concerns about how PHS is currently disposing of the (by-now merely tepid) wastewater, including by cross-examining other parties’ witnesses and by presenting its own expert evidence.

Enter, stage left (stage right, if you prefer) another key actor in this, ahem, simmering dispute – the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) which, on 13 April, issued a Pollution Abatement Notice to a related entity of PHS, “expressing a view that PHS’s geothermal wastewater disposal is being carried out in a manner that has caused or is likely to cause pollution”.

Mr Dwyer says no decisions have been made in the related cases. But PHS (Peninsula Hot Springs, in case you’d forgotten) has indicated it wants to dispose of “used” water via a pipeline to the South East Water treatment plant at Boneo.

(Groundwater pollution can be a serious health problem, especially if the water is used for drinking or bathing.)

St Andrews seeks six Declarations in this case. Briefly, they are:

1–3. That a licence issued by Southern Rural water to PHS in 2015 is invalid and that the current valid licence requires all geothermal water to be returned to the deep aquifer.

4–6. That PHS is polluting land and/or water by disposing of used water to filtration ponds.

St Andrews also wants PHS restrained from disposing of used water except to the Boneo treatment plant or back to the deep aquifer, maoinly to prevent its disposal to the filtration ponds.

Southern Rural Water and PHS sought the St Andrews case to be summarily dismissed when the hearing opened on 2 June this year. They were partly successful, Mr Dwyer finding that Declarations 1–3 “are an abuse of process and bound to fail …” and had stern words to say about the St Andrews case.

He also dismissed Declarations 4–6 but stated that their underlying subject matter – pollution and water quality – “might still have some overlap” in the continuing related VCAT hearings “or could conceivably become the subject matter of other action in other forums”.

The seriousness of this matter is summed up in the last paragraph of Mr Dwyer’s findings, where both Peninsula Hot Springs and Southern Rural Water have sought costs from St Andrews, via a hearing in the Costs Court.

“I think it would be fair in all the circumstances to give St Andrews that opportunity, with the other parties having a right of reply, and the orders above provide a timeframe for this,” Mr Dwyer concluded.

One still to be acted on is:

 PHS and SRW must “no later than 4pm” on 25 July file documents on the costs application.

 “Unless any party requests a cost hearing, the Tribunal will determine the costs applications, without a further hearing, following the receipt of the further written submissions.”

So much for a relaxing session in the bliss of a steaming aquifer. Big money will be needed to pay for this piping-hot visit to VCAT.

 Full decision: