'Coal Face' exposes danger of putting profits first

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Coal Face
By Tom Doig
Penguin, 2015
$9.99, 144 pages

Released earlier this year, Tom Doig's The Coal Face describes the day last year that fire took hold in Victoria's Hazelwood coal mine and burned for one-and-a-half months.

This month the book was the joint winner of the inaugural Oral History Victoria Education Innovation Award. The judges described Doig's work as an “outstanding fusion of oral history, journalism and political activism”.

Written in the style of a short novel, Doig describes in grim detail how the toxic smoke spread across the La Trobe valley in one of the worst environmental and public health disasters in Australian history.

At first, the smoke increased health effects like asthma, even in healthy people. Then residents found their animals dying beneath the smoke.

Doig is struck by the scale of the whole thing. The incendiary coal face in the title is about 130 metres high, taller than the Sydney Harbour bridge. The fire took hold in areas not suitable for further coal extraction but still flammable.

Hazelwood owner GDF Suez literally sacrificed the people of the valley to make money. Fire fighting resources were focused on maintaining coal extraction and electricity production.

No evacuation of the area was announced despite predictions the fire would last a month. The book estimates 6000 people left anyway once the dangers became clear.

Very little assistance was offered to people suffering health effects or too sick to move. To add insult to injury, GDF Suez put a gag order on workers at the mine from talking to media about the fire.

There were two protest camps in the years before the fire calling for the power station to be replaced with renewable energy.

Climate Action Moreland says: “Hazelwood power station is old, unsafe and dirty. Based on emissions intensity, it is the third-dirtiest coal power station in the world and the dirtiest in Australia, releasing around 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, almost three per cent of total Australian greenhouse emissions.”

Last year, the coal power station in Anglesea was closed after a campaign of many years.

The book indicts the profit-making system for getting in the way of both cutting emissions and protecting the health and wellbeing of people.

The book indicates that closing the mine is not enough and an intensive rehabilitation program is needed to make the area safe from fires again.

It warns that under private ownership, it is cheaper for a company to close the mine and not clean up the mess, leaving potentially flammable areas that could ignite again.

In the 1990s, privatisation of the mine and power led to many job losses: at least 5000 direct jobs were lost, as well as tens of thousands across the La Trobe valley. One of the characters says privatisation “murdered Morwell and Moe”.

Privatisation also led to cost cutting. The reader sees in grim detail how the new owners began to remove safety sprinkler systems and other fire safety equipment as part of cost cutting.

The book interviews many of the participants in the campaign, most of whom did not have experience of campaigning before. At the first rally for justice, more than 1500 people turned up in Morwell.

The book is a rallying cry for justice for them.

[There is an ongoing Victorian government enquiry into the fire. The results will be released later this year. For more information, visit “Voices of the Valley” on Facebook.]

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