Morwell residents protest coalmine fire

A resident protesting at the meeting on March 2. Photo: Ursula Alquier.

About 1000 Latrobe Valley residents gathered at Kernot Hall in Morwell on March 2 to protest against government and corporate mishandling of the fire in the Hazelwood coalmine.

Residents directed their anger at government inaction and misinformation, and corporate negligence by GDF Suez, the multinational operator of the mine and power station.

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley explained to the meeting the efforts and risks being taken by the firefighters.

Lapsley said there was significant progress being made on fighting the fire, but days of hot and dry weather had set them back in the previous week. He said the methods being used were working and suggested the fire would likely be out within weeks. He said the fire had so far remained within the surface layer of the coal.

However, the meeting was angry and was frequently held up by interjections, particularly over the topic of air pollution.

The air quality index rates 150 as “very poor” and some areas, particularly in Morwell South, have suffered an index of over 2000, and staying in the “very poor” range for hours at a time, almost daily. The air quality in several nearby towns has also been affected.

Residents expressed particular anger at the lack of information over fine particle pollution. Two speakers — Greens' Senator Richard Di Natale and Merryn Redenbach from Doctors for the Environment — emphasised that official guidelines for fine particulate pollution (in the PM2.5 range) have no enforceable standards in Australia, only an “advisory” standard.

Residents said the dust masks they have been issued are past their use-by-date and do not stop fine particulates or toxic gases.

A local school teacher and parent, Erin Gruis, condemned the lack of government action to protect health. Some schools have relocated, and some locals have temporarily moved away. But Gruis said: “It's not the responsibility of schools, or of parents, to decide to take kids and people out of the community.

“Our schools, childcare centre and preschools are doing more for the children than anyone else, they are getting them out.”

Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union president Luke Van der Meulen made a fiery speech that put the blame on the government for failure to regulate the industry.

He said: “The fire was totally preventable. If we don't make sure there's an independent inquiry we'll have more.”

He said the inquiry after a 2007 mine fire had recommended capping the exposed coal seams in the disused portion of the mine with clay, but that this had not been done.

Van der Meulen pointed to other incidents indicating regulatory failure, such as when the Latrobe river “burst its banks” in 2007, which he said really meant that “the regulator let the mine get too close to the river.”

The Environmental Defenders' Office has called for a judicial inquiry, backed by the Greens and other environment groups. A judicial inquiry has the power to call witnesses, including from the mine operator, multinational GDF Suez.

The state government has recommended vulnerable individuals leave Morwell during the fire.

Greens MLC Greg Barber said in a February 28 press release: "This is a distressing and dangerous situation for Morwell residents. I first called for a partial, medically prioritised evacuation of Morwell on February 17. Since then, people have been breathing ash and coughing up muck. The Chief Health Officer has just confirmed this course of action.”

The group of locals who organised the March 2 meeting and protest are calling for compensation for the community and more funding for the local hospital services.

[Another protest will be held in Melbourne on March 11 at 12pm, at the GDF Suez offices, 525 Collins St.]

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