19 June 2014 — While the Hazelwood coal fire still smoulders over Morwell and the incidence of serious pollution-related health issues rise the Victorian and Federal governments have handed out $75 million to coal companies to develop new brown coal projects in the Latrobe Valley, infuriating residents.
An inquiry, which will conclude in the coming days, has also seen no firm commitment made to rehabilitation. Instead, the Victorian health department will conduct a long-term study into the health impacts on Morwell residents.
The inquiry heard that firefighters were censored from telling Morwell residents that they were exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution during the Hazelwood mine fire, according to a report this month in The Age.
“Health authorities also raised the safe level of air pollution for residents in Morwell without having the new guidelines peer reviewed and still chose not to evacuate after receiving data suggesting the higher threshold had been breached,” the report said and one MFB firefighter with 12 years’ experience says he was “ordered not to discuss high levels of pollution in the town during the fire”.
Wendy Farmer, president of Latrobe Valley community group Voices of the Valley, told The Fifth Estate her group was outraged over funds being put into the brown coal industry when the government should be assisting victims, and has called for the funding to be withdrawn and directed to the community.
A study of health impacts, she said, would not address the immediate health issues faced by the community.
Throwing money at the problem – without fixing its impacts
Federal Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane and Victorian Minister for Energy and Resources Russell Northe announced on Monday (16 June) that $25 million was being granted to Shanghai Electric Australia Power and Energy Development to develop a $119 million demonstration plant at the AGL-owned Loy Yang A Power Station in the Latrobe Valley.
The project is one of three funded under the 50:50 State-Commonwealth Advanced Lignite Demonstration Program.
Funding for the other two projects comprises $30 million for Coal Energy Australia for the development of a $143 million demonstration plant producing fertiliser, oil and high value coal used in steelmaking, and $20 million for Ignite Resources for the development of an $84.3 million pre-commercial plant producing upgraded coal products for local or export markets and synthetic oil, which can be refined into fuel sources such as diesel and petrol.
“How can Abbott and Napthine possibly justify giving $25 million of public money to the Chinese government, while people in the Latrobe Valley are still suffering from the aftermath of the Hazelwood mine fire?” Ms Farmer said.
“Public money should be going to assist the public – the people of Morwell and surrounding areas who were exposed to dangerous levels of particulate pollution and carbon monoxide, and are now suffering ongoing health issues.”
Experiencing the dark side of coal
Ms Farmer said the health impacts still being experienced by residents ranged from chest infections, asthma and other respiratory conditions to a possible increase in mortality.
“We seem to have had a lot of older people die, and we are trying to get facts on that at the moment,” Ms Farmer said. “I cough up phlegm every morning, and I never used to do that.
“The valley already had higher than average risk for cancer and lung diseases. We are not happy with just a long-term study.”
Community witness’s submissions to the inquiry reported a range of both immediate and long-term impacts, including rashes, headaches, respiratory distress, fatigue and psychological distress.
Ms Farmer said the true extent of the health impacts had been difficult to assess, as the Latrobe Valley Hospital claimed there were no extra admissions during the fire, something contradicted by at least one of the witness statements.
She also said there had been difficulty taking affected children to specialists in Melbourne for assessment and treatment, as the parents needed to first have a referral from a local GP to a local paediatrician, who then needed to make a further referral. Due to the limited appointments available at the under-resourced local paediatric services, the wait for that crucial local appointment can be weeks.
“The local doctors are denying the health impacts really actually happened,” Ms Farmer said.
Decontamination assistance hard to get
Another issue Ms Farmer said the community had been struggling to gain support for is the cleanup of ash residues that covered the town and settled in places including the inside of roof cavities, exhaust fan ducts, playgrounds and furnishings.
“We have been asking for decontamination of homes. There were some clean up services provided to the residents who qualified for relocation assistance, but all the crews did was wipe whatever window sills they could reach, and wipe down benches and tables and vacuum,” Ms Farmer said. “They didn’t do anything about the ash inside people’s roofs.”
“Some of the insurance companies are doing decontaminations [for policy holders], and replacing insulation and lounge suites, but there are other insurance companies not yet doing decontaminations. They have been using the excuse that the fire is not yet out, and they will only do the decontamination once it is out.”
It’s still burning
The fact the fire is still not out is a major concern for Ms Farmer and other residents.
“It is still smouldering; we can see the brown plume rising into the sky some days. There are usually hot spots in mines; we’re used to that and we’ve lived with it. The real worry is that summer will be upon us before we know it, and that’s a scary thought if the fire is not put out,” Ms Farmer said.
“We’ve seen no plan put forward about how it’s going to be made safe before the next bushfire season. We are not second-class citizens, and we call on the Premier and Prime Minister to reallocate all coal industry subsidies towards these pressing needs and safety of the Latrobe Valley community.”
These concerns about the recurrence of a major coal fire were echoed by one of the expert witnesses, Professor Don Campbell, director of the General Medicine Program at Monash Health.
“As climate change creates an increasing likelihood of extreme climate events and bushfires, plus the ongoing use of brown coal from open cut mines in Victoria’s power stations, we can possibly expect the conditions which might give rise to a coalmine fire to arise more frequently in future,” Professor Campbell said in his witness statement.
There is no safe level of exposure
Professor Campbell’s statement reinforced the importance of research into the health impacts, as currently no data exists for the duration and intensity of exposure the people of Morwell and surrounds experienced. However, based on the existing research, he outlined likely impacts that match those reported by the community witnesses.
“The Hazelwood Coal mine fire has the potential for long and short term adverse health effects principally due to the release of known air pollutants including [carbon monoxide], ozone and particulate matter.”
The major health effects he reported include fetal death, premature birth, lung growth retardation in newborns and children, cardio-respiratory morbidity and mortality, lung cancer, respiratory symptoms, asthma, diabetes and psychological and mental health effects.
“Future research should determine the short and long term health consequences (morbidity, mortality and health services use) arising from exposure to the smoke from the fire, and include a focus on improving the physical and mental health of individuals and the community,” Professor Campbell said.
While the fire was still burning, The Fifth Estate spoke to Professor Adrian Barnett from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, who said the situation was “one big experiment”.
“We really don’t know what the health effects will be,” Professor Barnett said.
He was critical of the Victorian heath department statements released during the fire, which suggested that while the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and those with existing respiratory conditions should consider evacuating, in most areas of Morwell the risk for others was low if they wore a mask or stayed indoors.
“Zero exposure is the only safe exposure to this type of smoke, Professor Barnett said. “The idea young healthy adults are not at risk is wrong. None of us are immune to this stuff.”