One year on: Morwell residents look forward to a brighter future without coal

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The Hazelwood mine burned for over six weeks before being brought under control

It’s been a year now since the fire at the Hazelwood coal mine in Morwell burned out of control for 45 days. Lachlan Barker takes a look at where Morwell is at now.

It’s been a year now since the fire at the Hazelwood mine in Morwell. For 45 days fire raged in an abandoned section of the mine and pumped out a landscape covering pall of horrendous, toxic smoke laden with particulate matter.

Residents suffered reddened and streaming eyes, coughing, sneezing and other respiratory discomfort and suffered an overarching stress at the continued burn.

It is thought that a large part of the problem was the removal of water pipes from the abandoned section of the mine by the operating company GDF-Suez as a cost cutting measure. If water had been available immediately, then the fire may have been extinguished before it got out of control.

So, come forward a year and where are we at with Morwell?

I contacted a Latrobe residents’ action group, the Voices of the Valley and spoke with president, Wendy Farmer. Our first topic was the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry (HMFI) launched by the Napthine Government.

This inquiry found was underwhelming to say the least on health effects and deaths.

On the Victorian Health Department website it says:

‘However, for February and March 2014, there were 22 deaths; this is 19 per cent lower than the average for same period over the previous five years (27).’

So I asked Wendy about this, and she was truly furious, saying:

"Those figures are completely misleading, they were taken from too small a sample, of dates in a small area and that area was one of the lesser affected areas, due to the higher elevation of that area. At the same time the Health department noted a 30/32 percent rise in deaths in the neighbouring area but were unsure to the cause.”

So, Wendy was justifiably angry with this ‘deaths lower than previous years’ finding and felt that for the Napthine Government to deny there were deaths coming from the Hazelwood mine fire was clearly a downplaying of the damage done.

However, thankfully for Voices of the Valley, an an associate professor in public health at the Queensland University of Technology, Adrian Barnett, did another analysis and found that there were more questions to answer and deaths had likely increased.

This was explored on the Victorian edition of ABC 7.30.

Another positive for the residents of the Latrobe – and Victoria in general – was that the Napthine Government had been booted out and Daniel Andrews' had taken over. Andrews is supportive of the residents of the Latrobe, and came down and met with them to hear their concerns.

Andrews has since announced that the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry will be reopened and Barnett’s analysis will be part of the process. The reopened HMFI will look at the health, deaths and the remediation of the Hazelwood mine

This is great news for Voices of the Valley, as it means that their concerns about the health of Latrobe Valley residents should now be acknowledged and then addressed.

In passing, I might add I spoke with Adrian Barnett to get some clarity on the deaths figures and he mentioned that the Napthine Government health minister, David Davis, upon hearing of Barnett’s new analysis, “abused him” in parliament.

So I went and found the relevant section in the record of Victorian parliament and Barnett wasn’t kidding.

It is wild stuff; the worst kind of purple-faced, saliva-drooling, out of control ranting that you would ever see.

Davis says of Barnett:

"Mr Barnett, is a well-known activist in many regards. He has given expert review advice to the Queensland Greens on the health effects of air pollution."

Sensation! An expert has provided data.

Davis ranted on:

"What is more, he is a person who has clearly entered the political fray with misleading and inaccurate information. He has presented it in a certain way for political purposes."

Davis goes on and on, but please remember, Adrian Barnett is an academic, at a university in another state, and so exactly what the “political purposes” are is impossible (even, I suspect, for Davis) to say.

If Barnett has any sort of agenda, it is cleaner air for all the people of the Earth; you can read about that yourself at the link above to Adrian Barnett’s webpage on the QUT website.

In microcosm, this ranting by Davis shows why conservative governments across the country have been – and are – in trouble; arrogance of this nature will not be tolerated by the voter.

So, moving on, back to Wendy, I then discussed with her what she wishes for in an ideal world.

Wendy replied:

“Basically, we wish for a healthier future for the citizens of the Latrobe Valley. The Napthine government could only see coal, they really should have been called the COAL-ition.”

This was a point also made by the editorial team here at IA in a story last year:

Wendy continued:

“If you said ‘Latrobe Valley’ to Napthine and his Government, they immediately just thought ‘coal’. However, there are other industries here: diary is big and high-level aircraft engineering is also here in the Latrobe. The aircraft built there are exported all over the world, so we can do other things.”

Wendy then raised the topic of the Renewable Energy Target (RET), saying:

“I feel that a great thing would be to use our engineering muscle and become a centre for renewable energy research and production. We can make aircraft, so why not open a solar panel factory here in the Latrobe Valley — what a great symbol that would be, a full break from the past, with its mining and burning of the dirtiest coal, to a new future with clean renewable industry in the Latrobe, allowing a healthy future for the residents here.”

As Wendy and I discussed, the Abbott Government’s winding back, or even dismantling, of the RET has had a direct human consequence here. With investment pouring into Australia’s renewable energy industry, Wendy’s wish for a renewable future for the Latrobe would be so much closer without RET investment uncertainty.

As to when the reopened inquiry will occur, I spoke with Victorian Minister for Mines and Energy Lily D’Ambrosio and she confirmed that the reopened inquiry will occur, not on a fixed date, but at the end of the bush fire season in Victoria, as many of the witnesses for the HMFI work in the fire industry.

So for Wendy and her group, things look, if not all rosy, at least brighter, with a chance to have the health of the Latrobe Valley residents carefully examined and hopefully constructive plans for the future made.

A future that makes Latrobe Valley a Health Conservation Zone as mentioned in the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report.

A future that will see other industries rise to prominence in the Latrobe.

And mostly, Wendy and the Voices of the Valley wish for a future with less, then no, coal.

Lachlan Barker blogs at cyclonecharlie88.blogspot.com.au. You can follow him on Twitter @cyclonecharlie8.

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