How did a mine fire that burned out of control for more than a month go unnoticed for so long? The Hazelwood coal mine fire is one of Australia’s worst mine fires and one that haunts the industry to this day.
The Hazelwood coal mine burned out of control for 45 days during February and March 2014. The following is an extract from Tom Doig’s book, The Coal Face, which examines how the fire impacted the nearby town of Morwell, and why the huge environmental disaster went largely unreported at the time.
Hazelwood coal mine fire | Foreseeing the Foreseeable
The Victorian summer of 2013–14 was one of the hottest ever. There were extended record-breaking heatwaves and hardly any rain. In the lead-up to the Hazelwood mine fire, then–Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley warned that the weekend of 8–9 February 2014 would bring the most extreme fire-risk conditions the state had experienced since Black Saturday. For Lapsley to declare a ‘code red’ (catastrophic) fire danger warning in the Latrobe Valley the forest fire danger index would have had to be 101 or above; the danger index for that weekend was 97. Lapsley issued a number of warnings to the community and announced a total fire ban for 8 and 9 February.
All this information, taken in total, is what the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report meant when it said the mine fire was ‘foreseeable’.
Unfortunately, no one within GDF Suez managed to foresee it. In the GDF Suez offices, all but one of the key employees who were trained to act as Emergency Commanders in the event of a fire decided to leave the Latrobe Valley that weekend to escape the heat. Mine Shift Supervisor Ian Wilkinson, who was rostered on, went to work. Technical Services Manager James Faithfull went to the beachside town of Inverloch. Mine Production Manager Rob Dugan drove four hours east to Mallacoota. GDF Suez’s Mine Director, Garry Wilkinson, was on holiday somewhere in Queensland.
‘AN ACCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN’
It could have been any fire, but it was a grass fire that broke out in Hernes Oak on the afternoon of Friday 7 February 2014, 10 kilometres north-west of Hazelwood mine. The blaze was small to begin with and the CFA responded quickly, declaring it ‘under
control’ by Friday night. But on Sunday afternoon the wind changed to a strong westerly and the smouldering fire exploded, breaking its containment lines and burning down the tree-lined corridor of the Princes Freeway until it reached the eucalypt plantations by the Morwell River, one kilometre from the mine. The eucalypts responded to the bushfire in an entirely predictable manner: they burst into flames, and the wind blew millions of embers and burning strips of bark directly onto Hazelwood’s vast cliffs of exposed brown coal. The Board of Inquiry considered this to be the likely cause of the mine fire.
The Board also accepted that the mine fire may have had other causes, namely a second fire that started on Sunday afternoon 10 kilometres south-west of Hazelwood mine, in Driffield, just as the Hernes Oak fire was flaring up again. The Driffield fire burned across dry grass and through trees towards the mine, also sending flaming embers into the open-cut.
There were also allegations, serious ones, from the CFMEU’s Luke van der Meulen, that there was already a fire burning inside Hazelwood mine well before Sunday afternoon.
‘The trouble is – and I reported this to the Mine Fire Inquiry – a number of our members told us that they were experiencing fires in the Morwell mine, well before the supposed fire jumped into the mine [on Sunday],’ said van der Meulen. ‘But none of them will come forward. If you come forward on something like this you will probably lose your job.’
The Inquiry Report declared that ‘there is no evidence to suggest that the Hazelwood mine fire started from a source inside the mine’. Van der Meulen’s statement, which is not a direct eyewitness account, does not count as evidence.
An even more hair-raising suggestion comes from inside the Melbourne Fire Brigade (MFB). According to an MFB firefighter who spoke on condition of anonymity, ‘the worst possible rumour’ is that GDF Suez had to use an angle grinder on a total fire ban day to break a lock to get water flowing into their water pipes, in preparation to fight the approaching bushfires. Sparks from an angle grinder allegedly set fire to the brown coal around the pipe.
The eucalypts responded to the bushfire in an entirely predictable manner: they burst into flames, and the wind blew millions of embers and burning strips of bark directly onto Hazelwood’s vast cliffs of exposed brown coal
‘In restarting their ring main,’ the firefighter suggested, ‘they in fact started the fire.’
The Hernes Oak fire is thought to have been started by an out-of-control campfire. The Driffield fire is suspected to be the work of an arsonist. The fire that allegedly started in the Hazelwood mine before Sunday 9 February 2014 is unconfirmed. How these respective fires started might be interesting, but it is ultimately not that important. During fire season in the Latrobe Valley, fires are to be expected, and brown coal is extremely flammable. The central question is: how much work had the mine owners done to prevent a small fire from becoming a forty-five day chronic industrial disaster?
After environmental Auditor Rob Savory completed a ‘detailed assessment of available documentation’, he concluded: ‘the catastrophic mine fire of [February] 2014 was inevitable, “an accident waiting for a time to happen”.’
‘WHAT HAPPENS AT HAZELWOOD, STAYS AT HAZELWOOD’
Naomi Farmer finished her Red Flag article on Sunday 23 February, two weeks into the fire. It was published on their website that afternoon with the title ‘Disaster in the Valley’. The story included a description of Naomi’s dad Brett working in the mine on a dredger, not realising he had ‘elevated and dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in his blood’:
‘I was digging coal from way over the other side of the open-cut and I thought, “There is no drama here, the wind is blowing pretty strong”. I only went outside for half an hour to check the oil levels and then the next thing you know, I am going to hospital,’ he said.
According to Naomi, Brett had his blood tested on the spur of the moment, and somewhat randomly, ‘just because he was near a testing station’. The carbon monoxide levels in his bloodstream were so high that the medic insisted Brett be taken to Latrobe Regional Hospital in Traralgon immediately. He wasn’t even allowed to go to his locker to take off his work boots.
Naomi’s ‘Disaster in the Valley’ article went viral on Facebook. It was one of the first in-depth reports on the mine fire and people in the Latrobe Valley were starved for stories that reflected the seriousness of the situation. Doug Steley posted the story’s URL on the comments sections of every news site he could find with notes saying: ‘Why aren’t you reporting this?’
That evening, from her share house in Thornbury, Naomi decided to ‘call a protest’ in Morwell for the next weekend. She set up a Facebook event and started inviting people, as well as friending anyone who commented on the event page or shared her article. After receiving 40,000 hits within a few hours, Red Flag’s servers overloaded and the site crashed. But by then the wheels were in motion. Dozens of Latrobe Valley locals friended Naomi on Facebook and sent her messages of support and tales of woe. Some of these new ‘friends’ worked at GDF Suez, and had information about conditions in the mine.
‘Just to fill you in – I can only post so much, as told will lose [my] job,’ one worker wrote to Naomi the day after her article appeared. ‘We are contractors that drive tilt trays and low loaders on a daily basis. We have to drive to the bottom of the open-cut [mine] for Coates Hire/Hazelwood Power etc. We are unprotected. Told to use back gate as our [carbon dioxide] readings are too high. Medical teams [at the front gate] will not let us leave. We have felt so light-headed, throwing up etc. etc., then we drive on road in heavy vehicles, putting other road users at risk […] if i don’t do this i will lose my job.’
‘As of today we have to hand phones in to Hazelwood power security, if phone has camera. no photos to be taken on site. Think we need 60 Minutes, Today Tonight, etc. […] don’t believe reports from [Craig] Lapsley or any government department, they tell lies. They don’t want the town to panic.’
The next day, the contractor got in touch again.
‘Just got home from Hazelwood. Ended up in medical. [Carbon dioxide] readings were over the top. Ambos wanted to take me hospital. Officers in charge wouldn’t let me leave. Three heart attacks here today. “What happens at Hazelwood stays at Hazelwood,” they are telling us. They are paying us off with Bunnings gift vouchers and hats to keep what is happening in Hazelwood “under our hat” lol. I’m over it.’
Soon after this, the worker stopped messaging her.
Latrobe Valley resident Tara Dean became suspicious within a fortnight of the fire breaking out. The Department of Health published media releases and information sheets on the Hazelwood coal mine fire, but they didn’t always make sense.
Q: Could this current smoke exposure affect my long-term health or that of my family?
A: If you were exposed to high air levels of smoke, breathing difficulties may develop or recur in the following 36 hours. Seek immediate medical help if symptoms occur.
Tara was taken aback – was thirty-six hours meant to qualify as ‘long-term’, or had the Department of Health just failed to answer its own question?
In interviews and press conferences, Chief Health Officer and government spokesperson Rosemary Lester talked about a ‘knowledge gap’ regarding what was in the smoke and ash and what it would do to people. (Dr Lester refused to be interviewed for this book.) Tara wasn’t convinced, so she just googled ‘coal smoke’. The first thing that came up was the ‘great smog’ of London in 1952, which lasted for five days, made 100,000 people sick and caused 12,000 premature deaths. It was the result of excessive quantities of coal smoke and ash in the air and in people’s homes. London doctors tried to blame the sickness and death on an influenza epidemic, but this was subsequently disproved.
The more research Tara and her partner Ron Ipsen did from Ron’s Tanjil South lounge, the worse it got. Tara and Ron immediately became concerned about the high levels of PM2.5 particles in the smoke. They found out that when coal is burned, the combustion is not complete. Some extremely small particulate matter (or PM) remains intact, and is carried into the air with the smoke and ash. These are called PM2.5 particles because they are smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. (There are 10,000 microns in a centimetre; a few thousand PM2.5 particles could easily fit within a single 10-point font full stop).
When breathed in, these microscopic particles are taken deep into the lungs, which are unable to filter them. They pass directly into the bloodstream, and can cause brain aneurysms and heart attacks in the short term. The long-term health effects of PM2.5 exposure, according to the Department of the Environment’s website, could be drastic:
Studies have linked exposure to particle pollution to a number of health problems including respiratory illnesses (such as asthma and bronchitis) and cardiovascular disease. In addition, the chemical components of some particles, particularly combustion products, have been shown to cause cancer. These effects are often more pronounced for vulnerable groups, such as the very young and the elderly.
High levels of PM2.5 pollution is one of the main reasons Beijing’s air is so notoriously hazy and dangerous to breathe. On bad days in Morwell, the air was worse than in Beijing. The World Health Organization considers a daily average of twenty-five parts per million to be the maximum safe level of PM2.5 exposure. In the course of the 45-day mine fire, this safe level was exceeded in the south of Morwell on twenty-one days. PM2.5 levels were ‘hazardous’ – higher than 150 parts per million – on seven different days. The highest recorded reading, on 15–16 February 2014, was 700 parts per million, nearly thirty times worse than the maximum recommended exposure.
During fire season in the Latrobe Valley, fires are to be expected, and brown coal is extremely flammable. The central question is: how much work had the mine owners done to prevent a small fire from becoming a forty-five day chronic industrial disaster?
HAZELWOOD COAL MINE FIRE INQUIRY
On May 26, 2015, the Victorian Government announced the reopening of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, to be led by the Honourable Bernard Teague AO and joined by Professor John Catford and Anita Roper.
Under its terms of reference the Board is examining three areas of interest:
- Options to decrease the risk of fire arising from or impacting the Anglesea Mine
- Health impacts on the Latrobe Valley community resulting from the 2014 Hazelwood coal mine fire
- Mine rehabilitation ( Hazelwood coal mine ) options for the three Latrobe Valley coal mines.
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