Journalist Tom Doig’s recently released book The Coal Face is an eloquent and forensic investigation into the Hazelwood mine fire and its impact on local residents.
Mr Doig spoke to an extensive number of local residents during the fire and has maintained an active engagement with the community since. His investigations into the way mine owner GDF Suez managed – or failed to manage – rehabilitation and fire protection infrastructure led him to the same conclusion as the first inquiry – that the fire was an inevitable disaster waiting to happen.
The level of detail in terms of research around the mine and its operations, and how the steady decline into inevitable catastrophe occurred with full government complicity, makes for compelling and disquieting reading. His interviews with the people of the valley about how the disaster and its aftermath have impacted them are both compassionate and provocative.
As much as it is a literary and forensic reporting of one of Australia’s biggest environmental disasters, it is also the story of how a community found its voice and refused to be marginalised or have their ongoing trauma swept under the rug by government and industry.
Mr Doig is concerned there are some stones that may yet remain unturned by the reopened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry.
- See our story Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry reopening welcomed
He said there were questions as to whether the fire was started by embers from bushfires, as has been claimed, or whether there was already a fire burning in the mine before that catastrophic Sunday. Workers at the mine told him there was already a fire in progress but the company’s culture of “intimidation and silence” meant none of them were prepared to go on the record.
“In the terms of reference [for the new inquiry] they are not looking at GDF Suez’s lack of liability,” Mr Doig said.
“The question of whether there was a fire burning before [the bushfires] is huge. There is a mounting death toll, and that should be a matter of either criminal liability of amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. That is a stone that needs to be turned.”
Mr Doig said that while the Inquiry’s focus on mine rehabilitation is a positive, it seemed there was a “clear and present danger” that mining companies may simply declare bankruptcy, or restructure and effectively disappear if rehabilitation rules and costs appear too onerous for them. This would leave the communities near mines, and the government, with a major and permanent risk.
“The government knows it is going to be a really fine line to tread,” he said.
Mr Doig recently visited the Alcoa mine at Angelsea. The open cut and currently unrehabilitated mine is separated from the Angelsea community by an open stretch of highly flammable heath.
“The state government [potentially] inherits this broken infrastructure that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix, and an empty mine that therefore has no fire fighting staff on hand. And that means dealing with any fire will be left to the Country Fire Authority [volunteers].”
He said it was “disappointing” the issue of the risks illuminated by the Hazelwood fire have not gained traction at the federal level or interstate, particularly in light of the “absolute nightmare we’re walking into in the Galilee Basin and with CSG and fracking.”
During his first visit to Morwell two weeks into the fire, he was “blown away by the sense the whole town was an undeclared disaster zone”.
During a “harrowing” 23 hours he saw people collapsing in the streets and suffering other immediate health impacts, and suffered symptoms himself including headaches and coughing up phlegm with blood the following day.
“And at that time I was a healthy 34-year-old who had never smoked and was a long distance runner.”
He was disturbed by the official messages people were receiving in Morwell that there was no proof PM 2.5 particles were in the smoke and that “it’s probably fine”.
In the aftermath, he asked former Victorian Emergency Services minister Craig Lapsley about the lack of a coherent evacuation plan for residents, and if there had been any precedents to draw on in preparing one. Lapsley told him there wasn’t a plan, and there were no precedents, as evacuation plans generally had only been prepared for flooding.
“No one had any plans, no one had given any thought to this eventuality, which looks so obvious [that it would happen]. This was always going to happen. [The mine] was a horrible risk almost from the get-go,” Mr Doig said.
“It seems like it’s so negligent it should be criminal. But in this world we’re living in, there’s no [overseeing], there’s inadequate regulations and corporations are riding roughshod over the community.
“I am disappointed that we accept how society is – that we sell off public assets to private corporations, who then run them into the ground and then taxpayers are left with the [clean-up].”
Another stone he thinks will be left unturned is the bigger health picture on ongoing health impacts from coal mining on the people of the Latrobe Valley.
“I think people in the Valley are used to being slowly poisoned – it was the price of steady jobs and a tight, small community.
“No one in the Valley is keen on asking those questions [about general health impacts] either. They feel like if Hazelwood, Loy Yang and Yallourn close down it will be the death of the Valley. The slow creeping horror of life in the Valley is too confronting, they don’t want that conversation to be had.
“The whole region is contaminated – the air, the water and the soils. But this is people’s home.”