The reopening of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry has been welcomed by Environment Victoria, public health experts and members of the Morwell community.

The renewed inquiry will look at the immediate and longer term health impacts of the mine fire, the rehabilitation options and whether current rehabilitation bonds adequately reflect the task. The Andrews government has also asked the inquiry to consider the implications of the rehabilitation aspect for the soon-to-close Alcoa mine at Angelsea.

“This inquiry could be the start of a new era for the Latrobe Valley,” Environment Victoria safe climate campaign manager Nicholas Aberle said.

“At the first Hazelwood inquiry, there was ample evidence to show that bringing forward mine rehabilitation requirements would be an effective way of preventing catastrophic mine fires, but there were no specific recommendations to enforce this.

“The re-opened Hazelwood inquiry will review what these mines will be at the end of their lives, and the system in place to ensure those goals are delivered.

“As everyone agreed at the first Hazelwood inquiry, the current rehabilitation bonds are much lower than the likely cost of rehabilitation. Raising those bonds at each mine to match their actual liability will be a key task for the inquiry.”

The Terms of Reference will also address concerns over the spike in deaths that occurred during and in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

The inquiry will be chaired by Bernard Teague, who led the 2014 inquiry, and the board will also include Professor Emeritus John Catford, executive medical director for the Epworth HealthCare Group, and Anita Roper, a former chief executive of Sustainability Victoria.

The inquiry will deliver its recommendations on minimising fire risk at the Anglesea coal mine site by August 31. It will report on the health effects of the 2014 coal mine fire and measures to improve health in the Latrobe Valley in December, and deliver its findings into coal mine rehabilitation in March 2016.

Victorian health minister Jill Hennessy said the community deserved answers.

“They deserve to know whether the fire contributed to an increase in deaths, and what impact the fire may have had on their health. We will help the community find these answers,” Ms Hennessy said

“The Government is funding new equipment, a new health clinic and a long-term health study to help the community get the care, support and information they need.”

Dr Adrian Barnett, Associate Professor of Public Health at QUT, told The Fifth Estate that the first inquiry did not look at deaths at all, even though coal smoke is a very well known cause of death.

He undertook research on behalf of community members in the fire’s aftermath that showed there was a spike in deaths, with between 11 and 14 people most likely fatalities related to the fire and its toxic smoke which blanketed Morwell for 45 days.

Asked why he thought the first inquiry did not consider the matter of fatalities, he said that “maybe their advice wasn’t good”.

“With a big fire like that in a coal mine, it is pretty obvious there would be a lot of nasties in the air,” Dr Barnett said.

He said that one of the justifications used for not examining the issue of health and mortality impacts, is some people asserting that to come to any conclusion, the evidence has to be compared to a similar event, of similar duration, involving the same kind of coal with the same type of toxins in it. And in the case of the Hazelwood mine fire, the closest comparison is the Great London Smog of 1952 that killed an estimated 12,000 people, but was caused by a a different type of coal burning for a shorter period of time.

The bottom line is nothing like the Hazelwood fire has ever occurred before, leaving experts without a control group or benchmark to refer to.

Dr Barnett said there were a number of ways the fire may result in long-term increased morbidity, such as people who suffered an immediate health crisis that then causes a health decline and sets them on a long-term poor health trajectory. However, he said, evidence of that is going to be hard to find.

The main concern in terms of the smoke from the fire is the high level of PM 2.5 – fine particulate matter. This had not been measured in Morwell before the fire, nor was it consistently measured across the community during the fire or in the immediate aftermath, when people attempted to clean up homes, yards, businesses and streets covered in ash and its mix of toxic particles.

Dr Barnett said PM 2.5 gets deeper into the lungs than the larger PM 10 particles, which are often blocked by the bodies physical barriers such as nasal membranes. PM 2.5 particles are so small they go deep into the lungs and are more easily absorbed into the bloodstream. They can cross the placental barrier and be absorbed by growing babies, cross the blood-brain barrier, and damage the lining of arteries, increasing the likelihood of strokes.

Even without a mine fire, he said there was good evidence from studies of communities living near coal mining operations, such as those in the Appalachians in the USA, that show the general level of pollution from coal mining and coal fired power operations is not good for the health of anyone living nearby.

One of the reasons coal mines continued to be granted fresh approvals despite the established risks to health, he said, was because the National Environmental Pollution Measure (Ambient Air Quality) standard relating to PM 2.5 sets a threshold that gets used as a “safe” threshold for health.

“They are not [safe standards]. Pollution is not safe below the standard. I see a lot of projects that get approved, including things like road projects, because the modelling shows it will be polluting below the threshold,” Dr Barnett said.

“They are then going ahead and building these things, and there is very little checking of their models. And I’ve never seen a good [model] done.”

Dr Barnett said any statement that “coal is good for humanity” was absolutely not true, and he hoped something positive would come out of the Hazelwood inquiry in terms of the bigger picture of communities attempting to co-exist with coal mining and coal-fired power.

“With climate change, we are going to see more bushfires, and more intense fires,” he said, adding that this posed a risk to any coal mining operation and any community in the vicinity of one.

“I’d like to see [all of us] learn some important lessons,” he said.

In its submission to the NEPM PM 2.5 review, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre drew a connection between the increase in Australian coal mining activity and increased cancer rates in the broader community.

“Overseas experience shows us that public health interventions to limit fine particulate air pollution emissions led to major improvements in air quality in the States. These improvements have been accompanied by demonstrable benefits to human health,” the Institute said.

“An OECD report published earlier this year [2014] noted that of the 34 countries in the OECD, 20 saw their pollution-related deaths decline in that five year period. Australia was in the minority of 14 countries that saw their death rates increase. According to this report, we had an increase of 68% in air pollution related deaths between 2005 – 2010.

“The coal mining industry, Australia’s main source of particle pollution emissions, grew by up to 187 per cent during the last decade.”

Fiona Benson, convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance, welcomed the fact the first inquiry’s recommendation of a long-term health study on the people of Morwell would be carried out, and hoped the fresh inquiry would give the community information allowing individuals to make immediate and informed health decision both for themselves, and for their children and their children’s futures.

“We know there has been ongoing exposure, and there has also been this considerable period of particularly acute and toxic exposure,” Ms Benson said.

“But really people want to know what the impacts for their health are now, not in 20 years time from now, so they can make considered choices.”

Ms Benson said that at the time of the fire, the former head of the Victorian health department, Rosemary Lester, told people there was no real risk to their health from the smoke of the blaze.

She said the findings around health would potentially have national relevance.

“We all need to know nationally what to do with these coal producing regions. Transition plans need to be developed that assist these areas to develop sustainable, healthy and flourishing industries.

“People in the coal communities have already made a sacrifice of their health on behalf of others in the [broader] community – we have a responsibility to see they are looked after.”

CAHA recently released a study that showed the coal industry was causing a $600 million impact on health costs in the Hunter valley alone.

“No coal project should be approved without a health impact assessment,” Ms Benson said, adding that this should extend to coal-burning industries and to existing coal mining and coal-burning operations.

“They should be mandatory.”

She is also concerned that what happened in Morwell could also happen in the Hunter.

“There are dozens of open coal mines in the Hunter [that could catch fire], and with an El Niño predicted, that risk is beginning to escalate.

“Imagine if the Hunter catches fire – that is a huge risk to local towns, regional cities – even Sydney.”

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