The fire at the open-cut coal mine next to the Hazelwood power station in the Latrobe Valley raged for nearly a month. Although it has been contained by the enormous efforts of the fire fighters, this has been one of the worst fire disasters Victoria has seen for some time.
By Tim Tran, Socialist Party
It started on February 9 and engulfed the inadequately protected coalmine near the town of Morwell. At its peak the fire soared 120 metres high and stretched a kilometre wide. The whole area of Morwell was covered in ash and toxic smoke from the burning coal.
The dangerous levels of carbon monoxide produced by the fire forced many to leave their homes as people experienced respiratory problems, headaches and sore eyes. Tragically for those who could not afford to leave, they face potentially serious long term health issues.
Despite the serious nature of the disaster the State Government played down the health impacts of the fire. Relocation advice for residents only came after 3 weeks of continuous horrific conditions.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, a government employee, claims that there won’t be any long-term health effects but this is contradicted by air quality experts who have pointed to studies showing exposure for two weeks can lead to mortality in some cases but more commonly long term cardiac and respiratory problems.
Local residents are angry at the lack of response from the government. They are also directing their anger at GDF SUEZ – the private company that operates the coal-powered Hazelwood plant. Many blame the company itself for creating the conditions for the fire to spread.
It has been reported that the company deferred major spending on upgrading and maintaining their safety equipment. There was also no backup generator for the mine’s water pumps and motors in case of an emergency.
The removal of a preventative sprinkler system and the refusal to adequately cover the now disused and dangerously exposed sections of the mine were also cost-cutting measures that greatly contributed to the scale of the fire.
In the race to maximise profits, this company has neglected its health and safety responsibilities. The local community is now paying a heavy price for the decisions carried out by the profit hungry owners.
The government is also to blame in this regard. This plant was once publicly owned but has since been privatised. Privatisation and the drive for private profits has not only led to cuts to safety at the plant but also to higher electricity prices and a poorer service.
At the same time we are seeing the continuation of the most inefficient and polluting technique to create electricity – burning brown coal. Clearly this plant is not being run in the interests of ordinary people.
This disaster has exposed the dangerous consequences of privatisation and the lunacy of running public infrastructure for private profit rather than community need. The only way to prevent disasters like this happening again is to bring the power industry back in to public ownership but also under community and workers control.
Public ownership and democratic control of the industry would mean that safety could prioritised while the shift is made away from coal and towards renewable energy sources. A sustainable plan of transition would mean that both jobs and the environment could be protected while measures are taken to remove fire risks.