This morning, everyone is obsessed with the Liberal Party’s leadership spill — and fair enough. But exactly one year ago today, on the afternoon of February 9, 2014, a very different kind of spill was taking place in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, right next to the town of Morwell.
The Latrobe Valley “spill” was a massive, prolonged discharge of toxic smoke into the air breathed by a densely populated regional community.
It was the result of a fire in the Hazelwood open-cut coal mine, a fire that burned for 45 days before finally being declared “safe”. Although the mine fire is thought to have been started by embers from a nearby bushfire, the month-and-a-half-long blaze at Hazelwood was not a natural disaster; it was a chronic industrial mishap of the most unnatural kind.
According to Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley, there was a fundamental problem with mine operator GDF SUEZ’s risk-assessment strategy, which focused on “risk mitigation” — reducing the likelihood of a disaster happening — but did not adequately consider the “consequences” of actual disasters, should they occur.
“The weakness in [GDF SUEZ’s] risk and mitigation strategy was that it was about the power generation, and not necessarily about how close the mine was to a community — and, if you had an ongoing fire, what that would do to that community,” Lapsley said.
Lapsley agreed that this “massive blind spot” regarding the actual consequences of disasters was shared by the emergency services.
While media coverage of the fire’s impacts has mostly focused on Morwell, the carcinogenic airborne “spill” also affected the neighbouring towns of Traralgon, Moe, Newborough and Churchill, as well as the farms in between — in total, more than 70,000 people living within 20 kilometres of the mine.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the fire was “a world’s first in terms of prolonged adverse air quality“. Environment Victoria described the smoke as “possibly the worst incident of environmental pollution in our state’s history“.
In September 2014, air pollution and public health expert Professor Adrian Barnett at Queensland University of Technology analysed Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria data for the postcodes of Morwell, Churchill, Moe-Newborough and Traralgon.
“My analysis showed there’s an 89% probability that there was an increased risk of death [during February and March 2014],” Barnett said. Barnett found there was a 15% increase in deaths, which translates to 11 extra deaths across the four postcodes.
Earlier today, Barnett announced that updated figures from Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria show there is now 94% certainty that an increase in deaths occurred in Traralgon during the mine fire.
The Department of Health has questioned Barnett’s findings and emphasised that the death rate in Morwell actually declined by 19% in February and March 2014 — which equates to a drop of five deaths. However, the Department of Health has not attempted to explain or contextualise this statistically significant deviation. (For example, one potentially important factor is that approximately 6000 of Morwell’s 14,000 residents temporarily moved away from Morwell when the smoke was at its worst.)
Meanwhile, the department’s own analysis of mortality rates in Moe and Newborough suggests that “[t]here were increases of 32% and 33% in the deaths for these two time periods [February and March, 2014]”. In real terms, that’s approximately 10 extra deaths.
Although the Department of Health has contracted Monash University to undertake a long-term health study on the effects of the mine fire, at present this study will only examine residents of Morwell — not people from adjacent towns such as Moe, Newborough or Traralgon. Based on the death statistics above, this seems like a significant and concerning shortcoming.
Meanwhile, in “the Valley”, life goes on. Coal ash with higher-than-recommended levels of aluminium, barium, chromium, iron, strontium and titanium lies in a thin layer in most of the roof spaces of Morwell, as well as many of the ducted heating units. Despite this, the Latrobe City Council and the Department of Health consider the clean-up “complete”.
On this day of many “spills”, it’s worth reflecting on one of Tony Abbott’s choicest soundbites from last year: “Coal is good for humanity.”
*Tom Doig is a writer and editor. His new book about the Hazelwood mine fire, The Coal Face, will be published by Penguin Australia on March 25, 2015.