The Hazelwood coalmine was hit with a catastrophic fire in early February. It burned for 45 days and exposed the residents of the town of Morwell to serious health risks.
It was recently revealed that the mine operator, GDF, took very few precautions to prepare for what was a foreseeable event. The fire covered the town with smoke and caused many respiratory issues for nearby residents and the fire fighters who battled the flames.
An inquiry into the incident heard that the authorities had failed to warn the community about elevated carbon monoxide levels. At least 20 fire fighters needed to be treated after the exposure.
The United Firefighters Union has called for an investigation into allegations that the accepted limit for carbon monoxide exposure more than doubled as the catastrophe wore on.
The nationally accepted standard for exposure to carbon monoxide is 30 parts per million. During the fire, fire fighters were told that if the exposure levels reached 50 parts per million twice in one hour they would need to wear breathing apparatuses and only if it went as high as 75 parts per million would they be evacuated.
Clearly the authorities and the mine operator have compromised people’s health. This was another example of employers putting profits ahead of the interests of ordinary people.
While some fires are unavoidable the truth is that extreme weather events are being made worse by climate change. At the same time risks could be significantly reduced if the burning of coal was phased out in favour of clean renewable energy sources.
The only way to make this viable is to remove the profit motive from energy production. A publicly owned and controlled energy sector would be the only way to transition to a safer, cleaner environment while protecting jobs and local communities.
By Aishwarya Ramji