Victorian Premier Denis Napthine is living up to his new nickname, “Naptime”, as the Hazelwood coalmine fire continues its terrible impact on the town of Morwell in the Latrobe Valley.
The edge of the town is only a few hundred metres from where the fire has been burning since February 9. The plume of toxic smoke and ash from the fire has been blanketing the town.
The unfolding disaster demands an immediate escalation of action. Greens MLC Greg Barber is right to demand the government declare a state of emergency.
The first priority for emergency action must be the health of the community. Declaring a state of emergency and providing evacuation centres with some form of accommodation for those who wish to leave are the bare minimum that the government needs to do.
The state government is advising people to leave Morwell if possible. This leaves vulnerable people such as unsupported elderly residents, and people who cannot risk leaving their employment, with no choice but to stay and breathe the toxic smoke.
The mine fire is also highlighting deeper problems, such as the failures of private ownership of the power industry, government regulation, and the inadequacy of Australia's air pollution monitoring and safety standards. The future of employment in the Latrobe Valley is also brought into question if cost-cutting can cause such disasters as this.
A PREVENTABLE FIRE
The mine operator, multinational corporation GDF Suez, did not rehabilitate the disused section of mine that is now burning. Coal seams were left exposed, vulnerable to fire, and the water pipes and sprinkler system in that area had been dismantled and scrapped.
GDF Suez has denied these claims in media comments, saying the disused mine section was in the process of rehabilitation. Whether it met the letter of government requirements in that regard, clearly the company or government oversight must have been at fault.
Blaming the bushfire that started the mine fire is obviously not good enough; we all know bushfires happen and prepare accordingly.
Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) president Luke Van der Meulen has assigned at least some blame to the state government.
He said: "The company is operating in a financially constrained time and will always try and do the things that Hazelwood does — but the only thing that prevents that is regulation, which clearly hasn't been going on here," the Latrobe Valley Express reported on February 20.
He told ABC’s 7:30: "The community shouldn't be experiencing this fire right now. We believe it's the fault of the regulators and whoever's running the mine at different times — they should have rehabilitated these mines, and until they were fully rehabilitated, they should have had proper firefighting infrastructure to fight fires.”
RECORD BREAKING AIR POLLUTION
Government departments and schools have temporarily moved out of Morwell and residents have been advised to leave if they can. But the state government has resisted all suggestions to evacuate the town or declare a state of emergency, even as air pollution in the town reaches astounding levels.
The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) was caught flat-footed by the mine fire and had to scramble to install monitoring stations in Morwell. Yet Morwell is a big regional town, midway between three large brown-coal power stations. The nearest regular EPA monitoring station is at Traralgon, 14 kilometres to the east and the only such station in the valley.
The new EPA monitoring stations in Morwell show the official Air Quality Index (AQI) “very poor” rating of 150 has been vastly exceeded, for hours on end, on most days. On February 22, the AQI reached over 2000 at Morwell South. Other local towns including Churchill and Traralgon have also been badly affected, depending on wind direction.
Coal burning normally produces hazardous gases and smoke. When it is not burning completely (such as when under water attack), it is worse, and pollutants include known carcinogens such as benzene, and toxic carbon monoxide gas. On the evening of February 21, carbon monoxide levels at Morwell South remained in the poor to very poor range for nine hours.
Particulate matter, containing carcinogens, is the longer-term worry, and could lead to many otherwise preventable deaths.
Fine particles in the PM2.5 range (much smaller than the width of a human hair) are being measured in high concentrations at the EPA's Morwell South monitoring station on an ongoing basis. Larger PM10 particles are also present in the smoke along with toxic gases such as ozone, which can inflame the respiratory system, allowing particulates to penetrate further.
Fine particles can be breathed deep into the lungs. Those with existing heart and lung diseases are at immediate risk from this pollution. Children's lungs may be particularly damaged by air pollution, bceause they are still forming. Carcinogens among the particles may later cause cancers.
There is no safe level of exposure to the particulates in coal smoke. It is essential that the EPA conduct ongoing and thorough monitoring of the pollution, and this should include the day-to-day smoke from the power station at locations around the station, not in only one town.
COULD MORE BE DONE TO PUT OUT THE FIRE?
Government officials claim it may take another two weeks to extinguish the fire. One firefighter, who identified himself as a strike team leader, told ABC radio he believed it would be much more than two weeks. He said there were not enough firefighters, and they were relying on volunteer firefighters.
Exactly how the fire can be put out more quickly is unclear. Victorian Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley told the ABC that firefighters are trying to keep a balance with the volume of water used on the fire, otherwise “we could see collapse, we could see flooding of the mine, we could lose critical infrastructure that allows the mine to operate.”
Keeping the power station running is not a reasonable objection to flooding. It will cause GDF Suez to lose profits, but that should be the least of anyone's worries. Australia has excess baseload power generation capacity — other than in a midsummer heatwave, it is unlikely that taking the station offline would seriously jeopardise energy security.
BEYOND THE EMERGENCY
Declaring a state of emergency, and conducting a state supported voluntary evacuation should be the first priority.
Beyond that, an inquiry is desperately needed into the various private owners of the mine over the years, and the state governments that have regulated them — or failed to regulate them. How was a disaster like this allowed to occur?
Those responsible — government regulators and private operators — should pay for the clean-up and compensation to the community.
Power privatisation has delivered Victoria 20 years of rising electricity prices and the complete failure to plan a transition to cleaner energy sources. Now we are seeing disasters such as this fire and the 2012 flooding of the nearby Yallourn mine, caused when a diverted river broke its artificial banks and filled the pit.
The inquiry should investigate the background and scope of these incidents. Meanwhile, once the fire is out, the government needs to act on enhanced monitoring of air quality, enforcing compliance, and cleaning up the ash.
Renewable energy is poised to replace the coal-fired power stations with a few policy changes — and rapidly would, if “brown tape” regulatory barriers were removed such as the Victorian anti-windfarm laws.
If the fire were to cause the sudden closure of Hazelwood, the Latrobe Valley could find itself the scene of a second disaster, this one social, as hundreds of workers would be out of work. But the culprits would largely be government negligence once again.
Wind turbines and solar panels can replace an old coal power station's output within a year or two. But the government has shown no interest in attracting renewable energy manufacturing and let the one wind turbine tower manufacturer in the state fall on hard times.
Neither the government nor the private owners have any plans to support a transition to renewable energy jobs, and disaster in threatening the health of the community of the Latrobe Valley, leaving its people highly vulnerable. They deserve better than this poisonous cloud, and they deserve better than the government and corporate negligence that is threatening their future health and social wellbeing.