Reform is needed to ensure that mines take all reasonable steps to protect the community from disasters like the mine fire, and properly rehabilitate their mines.
Lisa Wilson was pregnant when the brown coal mine next to Hazelwood Power Station caught fire, blanketing the town of Morwell in clouds of toxic smoke. Despite constant assurances that the fire would be out ‘soon’, it raged for weeks. Residents reported that the thick haze of air pollution made them feel sick and left coal ash dust in their homes.
Like any mum-to-be, Lisa was keen to know what the effects might be on her unborn child. The Department of Health couldn’t tell her a thing. Eventually, feeling ‘distressed and useless’, she left town – an ordinary person forced to leave her community due to major health concerns, at a time when she should feel safe.
Today, final submissions are being made to the Hazelwood Mine Inquiry. We have been in Morwell, at the Inquiry into the Hazelwood Mine Fire, representing Environment Victoria. As we have been listening to what’s been said at the inquiry, it’s becoming clearer every moment that our laws do not adequately guarantee that communities like Lisa’s are protected from the impacts of mining.
The effect of the Hazelwood fire on local communities in Morwell and Traralgon was devastating. The towns spent weeks with residents concerned about whether it was safe to let their kids play outside, go into town to work or even, in the case of residents in Morwell near the mine, stay at home. Vulnerable groups like children and the elderly suffering particularly acutely. Those who could leave, left.
Main streets were deserted, leaving small businesses without customers and causing serious economic problems in the town.
We have been asking questions about whether rehabilitating the mine could helped prevent this fire, and fires in future, so that communities do not have to again experience what Morwell has just.
At the Inquiry, it has been shown that the areas where the fire started in the mine did not have adequate fire prevention measures in place. Expert evidence has said it was foreseeable that fire could have taken hold in these areas. And no one wants to take responsibility for this.
The Department of State Development, Business and Innovation, the Department responsible for approving and regulating mining in Victoria, said that regulating fire risk in mines was not their problem, it was WorkCover’s job. They also said that it was up to the mining company, now GDF Suez, to decide when and how they go about rehabilitating the site, including those areas of the mine closest to the town of Morwell, where one of the fires first took hold.
WorkCover said that they only regulate risks from mining at the Hazelwood mine site. As a result, they said it was not their job to regulate risks the area of the mine where the fire started, because it had not been mined for years, and leaving the coal exposed was not a mining activity.
They also said it was up to the mine’s owner, GDF Suez, to work out the risk to the community and ‘balance’ that with the risk to their profits.
When asked if they would be willing to rehabilitate more of the mine, sooner, to make fires like the one in February less likely, the mine’s owner, GDF Suez, indicated that they were unwilling to do that because it would be too expensive and might interfere with ‘mine sequencing’.
It’s becoming obvious that the law holds no one responsible for disasters caused by mining, like the Hazelwood mine fire.
Lisa and the other members of the communities near Hazelwood deserve legal protection. But currently our laws and the regulators are not delivering. Reform is needed to ensure that mines take all reasonable steps to protect the community from disasters like the mine fire, and properly rehabilitate their mines. Reform is also needed to ensure that if the mines don’t do this, the regulators will step in, to make sure the community is protected.