Environmental Justice Australia is representing local community group Voices of the Valley in their bid to have the coroner investigate February’s Hazelwood coal mine fire.
Members of Voices of the Valley became concerned when they noticed what appeared to be an increase in the number of deaths in the area around the time of the fire. They started investigating by painstakingly going through death notices in the newspaper, and subsequently obtained official numbers from Births Deaths and Marriages. Their analysis found a significant spike in deaths which was later confirmed by a review by statistician Associate Professor Adrian Barnett. They believe there is strong evidence that this was caused directly by pollution from the coal mine fire.
Scientific studies have shown that short term exposure to air pollution like that from the mine fire can result in medical conditions such as heart attack, stroke, asthma and even death.
The recent Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry had to work fast to meet its deadline for reporting. The data on the spike in deaths caused by the mine fire was not available before the Inquiry concluded. The Hazelwood Inquiry therefore did not consider this issue at all, leaving crucial questions remain about whether the fire caused deaths.
Despite this evidence, and ongoing questions from Latrobe Valley residents, the Victorian government view is that no additional deaths occurred and no immediate investigation is needed. They have refused to reopen the Hazelwood inquiry to consider the issue.
It is a significant injustice for the people of the Latrobe Valley if an independent investigation into this issue is not held. A thorough, independent review is needed now. A coronial inquiry can do that.
The coroner has the power to investigate fires. In this case, recommendations from the coroner could help improve the reaction of governments, state agencies and private companies, so that ordinary people are protected from the effects of toxic air pollution from mining operations.