6 March 2014 — UPDATED 8 March 2014: As The Climate Council’s Professor Tim Flannery raised concerns over the health impacts of the coal mine fire at Morwell in Victoria, reports suggest GDF SUEZ/AE’s may have chosen to mothball the site rather than undertake expensive remediation.Professor Flannery said the health toll of the fire, at the Hazelwood open cut mine, was still unknown.
“I’m worried that we don’t yet know what this coal fire means for the health of firefighters and the people of Morwell,” Professor Flannery recently told representatives of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.
“Morwell has turned the spotlight on coal companies and the dangers of mining being located near communities. Do the companies running these operations know the health risks? If they do, then they should share them. If not, then why not?”
The fire has been burning since 9 February.
Professor Flannery said important questions were still to be answered, such as whether owner GDF Suez had taken proper precautions to protect the mine from fire, and whether Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority had held the company to their obligations.
- UPDATE: According to a lead article in the newly launched The Saturday Paper:
“… the full rehabilitation costs to the site would reach half a billion dollars, a figure inadequately offset by the $15 million bond paid in 1996 and never reassessed by the Victorian government. The enormous cost sat uneasily with their average yearly profits of $200-$300 million, and within the inner sanctums of the company a cynical calculation was discussed – to mothball the plant rather than fully shut it down, in order to escape the costs of rehabilitation.
The source said it was all part of a larger, global aspiration to withdraw from merchant energy markets – a claim GDF SUEZ/AE flatly denies.
“Another major issue is whether GDF SUEZ/AE has properly observed its obligation – mandated by its licence – to properly “progressively rehabilitate” the mine. GDF SUEZ/AE told The Saturday Paper that this has occurred, that “in 2007/08, rehabilitation of a section of the northern batters was undertaken by truck and shovel, where some of the exposed coalfaces in this area were covered with clay.” But it is debatable whether the shifting of excess earth and its dumping on disused sections of the pit comes close to the remediation of land – that is, its restoration to an environmentally sound place, amenable to the local community.” Read the whole story
Professor Flannery said many international studies had provided sobering statistics on the health risks of coal, including 50,000 deaths in the US a year attributed to air pollution from coal-fire power generation.
“Here in Australia, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering has estimated the cost of health problems associated with burning coal as $2.6 billion per year,” Professor Flannery said.
“We need more information on the short and long term health risks of having coal mines and power stations near cities, towns and places people live.”
There has been speculation the entire 14,000 residents of Morwell would have to be evacuated, though on Saturday Victorian Chief Health Officer Dr Rosemary Lester instead suggested that people over 65, children under school age, pregnant women and anyone with a pre-existing heart or lung condition consider leaving town temporarily.
Yesterday [Wednesday], in updated advice on the EPA website, Dr Lester advised the elderly, children and those with existing heart or lung conditions to limit prolonged or heavy physical activity.
“Where possible this sector of the community should also limit the time spent outdoors,” Dr Lester said.
“Anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor.
“People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan.”