Last week’s flare-up of the Hazelwood mine fire has further outraged the residents of the Latrobe Valley with the community now laying the groundwork for a Cathy McGowan-style political coup at the state election in response to what they see as ongoing government inaction, including by Morwell’s state member Russell Northe, who is also energy and resources minister.
Premier Napthine last week delegated Parliamentary Secretary Craig Ondarchie to meet with residents of Morwell and others impacted by the Hazelwood mine, however president of Voices of the Valley Wendy Farmer said Mr Ondarchie was not given any authority to respond to the community’s issues.
The community’s requests to the government, which were set out in a letter to the Premier on 30 July, included asking that the government commit to commencing rehabilitation of all non-operational faces of the mine; undertake a review of mine bonds, given the $15 million bond paid on Hazelbrook appears insufficient for the rehabilitation task; and for the government to immediately release and implement the outcomes of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, which is due to be handed down on 31 August.
Ms Farmer said these recommendations would include declaring the Latrobe Valley a Health Conservation Area. This would mean that all new industry or development proposals would need to be assessed for their impact on public health, with go-ahead only granted for projects with a zero impact on health.
This may make further coal projects unlikely, as according to Ms Farmer they are responsible for the local community having the nation’s highest rates of lung cancer, respiratory illness and cardiovascular illness. Currently almost all of the Latrobe Valley area is under mining licence for coal, she told The Fifth Estate.
“It is time the government stopped throwing money at these things that give nothing to the country really, and looks at a zero tolerance policy for pollution,” Ms Farmer said.
Fire flare-up shocks community
The 50-metre-wide fire last week came as a shock to the community, Ms Farmer said, given that winter is generally a low fire risk time of year, and the combination of extremely cold weather and large amounts of groundwater from recent rains should mean minimal risk. However, the coal is continuing to burn underground, and a “hot spot” near the surface flared due to gusty winds.
Ms Farmer also pointed out with the official bushfire season due to commence within a couple of months, the community’s level of fear is high.
“We should be putting in place safety measures,” Ms Farmer said.
Victorian Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley told ABC East Gippsland this week he also found the fire to be of concern given the cold temperatures, and stressed the need to ensure monitoring was maintained and water applied to identified hot spots. Mr Lapsley said discussions would be held with GDF Suez to ascertain that the company is carrying out appropriate ongoing safety and fire management measures.
The impacts of the fire have included not only ongoing health issues including respiratory illness, skin disorders and poor mental health, but also a sharp decline in property values and an ongoing loss of population from the affected area.
In the immediate aftermath, the Napthine government committed to $673,500 over 12 months for long-term recovery measures including individual and family counselling; case support; the appointment of community development and recovery officers; the funding of community capacity building initiatives; and local government recovery support. The government also announced a $2 million clean-up package and $2 million in grants for the Morwell Business Relief Fund in April 2014.
Residents reach out to Indi for grassroots support
However, members of the community who are feeling frustrated by what they see as government inaction have reached out to the north-eastern Victorian federal electorate of Indi, where Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella was ousted by a grassroots movement backing Independent MP Cathy McGowan.
Ms Farmer said the Latrobe First movement will next week commence the same “kitchen table” discussions that laid the groundwork for the Indi campaign, using materials supplied to them by McGowan’s campaign team to build community support and develop a coherent set of positions based on community concerns.
These include the development of safer, cleaner industries. In the letter to the Premier the community also asked for the government to implement a jobs creation plan for the Latrobe Valley, with investment in a diversified economy and future industries including new manufacturing such as prefabricated houses and buildings, renewable energy components, value-adding to Gippsland’s agricultural sector and service sector jobs.
“Many people are stuck here and can’t just leave the area. It’s just not that easy to down tools and walk away,” Ms Farmer said. “But there are some people thinking of taking their kids and leaving, and they won’t come back. I’ve just lost two of my grandkids from the area because their parents felt it was too risky for them.
“Morwell has been a safe seat for a long time, but I don’t think it is anymore. The local member is a nice guy, but he has done next to nothing. People here are ready for a change.”
A spokeswoman for Mr Northe, who is the Minister for Energy and Resources and also Minister for Small Business, said that contrary to community claims, the rehabilitation of the disused parts of the mine has been underway since 2009, when the rehabilitation plan was reviewed and largely altered.
“The adequacy of these works are part of the inquiry and we await the outcome and recommendations in relation to those works,” the spokeswoman told The Fifth Estate. “The adequacy of the $15 million rehabilitation bond for Hazelwood is also under review by the Department of State Development Business and Innovation. The department will await the outcome of the inquiry before making any final deliberations on that review.
“Separately to what has taken place at Hazelwood, in last year’s budget the Victorian Government committed $4.2 million to reduce the risk of failures at mines that could affect infrastructure, public amenity and private property. Part of this work involves the development of guidelines specifically for the Latrobe Valley region where Victoria’s big mines reside. The guidelines will be on best practice management of mine stability both pre- and post-operation, which is critical for robust rehabilitation works.
“In addition to this work the government is also developing a methodology for determining how the scope of rehabilitation works and the rehabilitation bond amount are assessed and that will be a framework for all mines and quarries across Victoria.”