A Victorian government inquiry into the Hazelwood mine fire in the Latrobe Valley last year has found that it was “likely” that the fire caused an increase in deaths in the Latrobe Valley. The inquiry was tasked with discovering if there was an increase in deaths in the area during the 45 days of the fire, and if that increase could be attributed to the fire itself. The report was critical of former chief health officer Rosemary Lester and the Health Department, labelling the department “defensive” when it came to community concerns.

The report does concede that attributing deaths to the fire through epidemiology, the study of patterns and causes and effects of health and disease in populations, is not an exact science, but all experts who reported to the inquiry agreed with the findings. The report states:

“Accordingly there is no absolute proof for these findings, rather they are the most reasonable judgment based on the available evidence.

“Given the known health consequences of breathing air contaminated with particulate matter over a prolonged period, it would be surprising if the air pollution caused by the mine fire did not contribute to some deaths. However because of the imprecise nature of the analysis, it is not possible to attribute any specific death to the mine fire.”

The fire in the Hazelwood coal mine burned for five weeks in February and March last year before being declared safe by authorities, covering the the town of Morwell in ash and smoke for weeks. The inquiry was reopened by the Andrews government, after an inquiry by the previous Liberal government did not investigate whether the fire contributed to an increase of deaths in the region. Since the fire, locals in the Latrobe Valley, especially in Morwell, have campaigned for answers, believing that the fire had adverse health effects about which they weren’t properly warned.

The report was also damning of the Department of Health, saying that the department had come to a “premature view” about the possibility of deaths in the Latrobe Valley, and “became defensive in response to community concerns”.

At hearings in September, it was revealed that Lester had communicated with Dr Louisa Flander, the researcher commissioned by the Health Department to investigate the possible increase of deaths, with changes to Flander’s drafts made along with feedback from Lester. Flander defended her report at the time, saying it was independent of the department and had incorporated feedback, which was not the same as accepting changes.

The report recommended:

“The State should strengthen its processes to ensure that health information provided by the State to the general public is transparent, reliable and appropriate.”

It also made recommendations to avoid conflict of interest in future reports on public health:

“The State should mandate a rigorous process for the investigation of matters of public health concern to avoid real or perceived confl icts of interest, which includes requiring independent experts to declare whether the State has suggested any substantial changes to their advice and whether any changes have been adopted.”

Tom Doig, author of The Coal Face, a book exploring the effect of the mine fire on the town of Morwell, said the report reflected very badly on Lester, Flander and the Health Department. Doig says it should go without saying that the Health Department should not have a conflict of interest.

“We shouldn’t need an inquiry report to tell us that, that’s just basic sound business.”

Doig says that the way in which the Health Department was seen to be on the side of GDF Suez, the multinational company that owns the mine, was unprecedented. “They should be trying to get justice and get help for people who are sick and dying.”

“When the Department of Health is closing ranks with the company and their lawyers are running the same lines, it reflects extraordinarily badly.”

The report recommended that the state should engage independent consultants to review the State Smoke Framework and the Community Smoke Air Quality and Health Protocol in light of the findings and that “The State should reconsider, as a matter of priority, its approach to improving community engagement relevant to the health of the Latrobe Valley”.

Locals have had a mixed reaction to the news, saying that it could be the beginning of legal action.

Kiery-Anne Clissold, whose husband, Harry McCormack, died of an aneurysm in September last year, believes that his death is related to the fires and says she is “rapt” with the findings. “It can’t help my husband at all, but we can help those who are still sick and still getting sick.”

Clissold says she is “furious” about the findings about the Health Department, labelling the department’s reaction to the fire “appalling behaviour”.

Clissold says that she has suffered three asthma attacks since the fire and hasn’t been able to take out life insurance because of the attacks. She says she’d like the chance to talk to the managers of the mines to explain the impact of the fire. “I’d really like to take them out for a meal, buy them a beer and have a heart to heart, there’s a lot of things to say, not just to point the finger.”

Wendy Farmer, president of the Voices of the Valley community group, which researched the deaths and pushed for the inquiry to be reopened, says she feels vindicated by the findings. “[I’m] very mixed emotionally, because this has caused deaths. Angry, that the Health Department should have looked at this earlier, and should have protected the community.”

Voices of the Valley was commended by the report, and Farmer says that while it is good to be acknowledged, it’s important that authorities make sure that similar incidents don’t happen again. “We need to be guaranteed that this can never happen again, we want all these authorities to learn from what has occurred and it cant be ignored like it was.”

Doig is in Traralgon, at further hearings of the inquiry, which is now looking into mine rehabilitation. The current hearings mean the report was handed down while community advocates and those who lost family members during the fire are in the same building as mine management. “They are all sitting there awkwardly in the waiting room,” Doig said. The hearings will continue this week, with a further report due next year.

Peter Fray

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