A fire burning in a coal seam at the Hazelwood coalmine in Victoria's Latrobe Valley caused the local Air Quality Index to reach nearly five times the amount considered “very poor” on February 19.
Schools and kindergartens have been closed down in the town of Morwell, which is less than 500 metres from the edge of the mine. Residents have been complaining of headaches and other problems, and many have left the area.
There have been several alerts for dangerous levels of the toxic gas carbon monoxide. One resident said some houses are blanketed with three centimetres of ash from the fire.
Victorian Greens MP Greg Barber used parliamentary question time on February 19 to ask Health Minister David Davis whether incident managers had at any point recommended an evacuation of the town.
When Davis denied this, Barber said the minister should “make inquiries as to the monitored level of air pollutants throughout the course of this fire to determine whether at any point there were serious and immediate risks to human health.”
“Those people do not need advertisements in the paper to tell them that they are choking on smoke,” Barber said.
The coal seam fire, sparked by a bushfire on February 9, is expected to burn for several weeks. Several firefighters were hospitalised, and more treated, for carbon monoxide poisoning early in the fire.
A public meeting was held for the Morwell community on February 18. One attendee, John Ernst, said mine owners and the state government were a “no-show” at the meeting. He said the Chief Health Officer “only warned about respiratory issues which can occur with exposure to smoke.”
For the period 9-10am on February 19, the EPA website showed the Air Quality Index for the town at Morwell was a high 702. An index of 150 is enough to qualify as “very poor” on the scale. At other times, the index reached over 500.
The poor air quality included very high counts of PM10 fine particles, which are a significant health risk, especially to people with pre-existing heart or lung conditions, and to children's developing lungs.
Davis said in response to Barber's question: “The advice that has come from the chief health officer is that there are at risk groups and we need to communicate clear messages to those groups.”
Ernst said there was no “assistance to deal with [the] huge increase in respiratory related issues people are feeling now. There [are] no plans to provide ongoing health monitoring for the population either short term or long term. There is no trigger point to evacuate the town.”