Media release

Media brief: Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Coronial Inquest

October 28, 2014

Who is Voices of the Valley?

Voices of the Valley is an incorporated group of  residents in the Latrobe Valley which formed in March 2014 during the mine fire due to concerns about the adverse effects the fire was having on the health of persons living and working in the affected area.

Who is Environmental Justice Australia?

Environmental Justice Australia is the environment’s legal team. We use the law to protect our environment, and we work to change our laws to make sure they protect the right of all Australians to clean air, clean water and healthy ecosystems.

Why is a coronial investigation needed?

The Latrobe Valley community is very concerned about the impact on their health of pollution from the mine fire. They want to know whether it caused or contributed to the deaths of some residents, and whether it may lead to further deaths or serious illnesses. This issue requires independent investigation as a priority.

The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry considered health impacts from the fire in some detail, but it did not consider whether the smoke from the mine fire contributed to deaths during and immediately after the fire.

The inquiry was required to report in a short timeframe. Voices of the Valley presented its initial analysis to the Hazelwood Inquiry as soon as they had gathered the evidence. (Crucial data from BDM did not arrive until the day after the inquiry closed – VotV had requested the data four months earlier.)

However, as the time for submissions had closed, the Inquiry informed the group it could not consider the issue and would instead refer it to the Coroner and Department of Health.

The government has stated it will not re-open the Hazelwood Inquiry to investigate this matter.

A thorough, independent review is what the  people of the Latrobe Valley need if they are to get justice, and a coronial inquiry can do that.

Was there a spike in deaths from the mine fire?

During and immediately after the mine fire, members of VotV noticed an increase in death notices in the newspaper. They collated this information along with official statistics from Births Deaths and Marriages and found what appeared to be an increase in deaths during the time of the fire. Assoc. Prof. Adrian Barnett of QUT subsequently reviewed the data. His analysis concluded that there is an 80% likelihood that the death rate during the fire was higher than average, with an additional 11 deaths.

In response to Voices of the Valley’s concerns, the Department of Heath reviewed the data and concluded that the data from BDM shows nothing more than yearly variability.

Could the mine fire have caused additional deaths?

The pollutants produced by the mine fire included carbon monoxide, particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), and ozone.[1]

Each of the pollutants released in the fire can have severe health effects on people, in particular vulnerable members of the community, including children, pregnant women and unborn children, the elderly, and those suffering from pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.[2]  PM10 and PM2.5 are a very hazardous form of air pollution.

The independent health expert report commissioned by the Hazelwood Inquiry advised that short term exposure to the pollutants released during the mine fire causes increased mortality. There are other examples of short term exposure to air pollution leading to deaths such as the London coal smog in 1952 which lasted two weeks and killed 12000 people.

What can the coroner investigate?

The coroner has power to investigate fires under the Coroners Act 2008 and can make recommendations to any Minister or government agency on any matter, including public health and safety or the administration of justice.

The inconsistency in analysis of whether deaths have occurred has resulted in confusion and additional distress for community members that needs to be resolved. Community members are very concerned that deaths may be continuing to occur as a result of the fire. The response from the Government and Department of Health has not reassured the community that these issues have been properly investigated. Given the level of ongoing distress it is causing the Latrobe Valley community, and the ongoing threat to public health that exists while the issue remains unresolved, a coronial investigation is warranted.

Government response

Deputy Premier Peter Ryan told the ABC: “There have not been deaths and no indications of such…”

When the community engaged data anlysis expert Associate Professor Adrian Barnett to assist them to interpret the data, Health Minister David Davis responded in Parliament: “It is a few hardline lefties out there trying to say that things are terrible and therefore we should close down coalmining. That is where it is all heading…”

He told the Latrobe Valley Express: “The evidence does not support the contention made by a number of commentators and indeed supports the opposite contention, there was no increase in the death rate due to the fire.” [source]

[1] Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report, 2014, p 241.

[2] Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report, 2014, p 23.

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