Vic coalmine fire leaves lasting legacy

Vic coalmine fire leaves lasting legacy

05 September 2014

published by

Australia — Julie Brown couldn’t take it any more.

The air was thick with soot and smoke. The house was black with ash.

Her two-year-old daughter, her twin sons and her husband were taking medication to suppress their asthma and they all suffered from perpetual headaches.

They had to get out of Morwell.

They packed up their car on February 26, more than two weeks after bushfire embers sparked a fire in the open-cut Hazelwood coalmine near the Victorian town.

They drove to a free campsite, because they didn’t qualify for relocation assistance, and lived in a tent for a week.

“My partner still had to travel into work so we were sort of stuck out in the bush,” Mrs Brown says.

“Every day it was just ridiculous,” she said.

The coalmine fire had blanketed the town in toxic ash and smoke.

After a week of camping they returned to Morwell but soon found themselves fleeing to Cranbourne.

Others didn’t have that option.

Deborah Hollis qualified for a government relocation grant but the money wasn’t enough and moving wasn’t practical.

Her daughter Isabella, 11, and special-needs son Isaac, 9, were ill all through the 45-day blaze.

“I’d pick him up and he’d tell me he didn’t want to come home because his home would hurt him,” Ms Hollis says.

Their house is old and had been damaged by the earthquake that shook Gippsland in 2012.

“We just couldn’t seal the heat, the ash and the smoke out,” she said.

She was slugged with insurance excesses but her policy wouldn’t cover a lot of the repair her home needed.

Ash ate into her carpets.

She threw out clothing, bedding and small electrical items that she couldn’t get the ash out of.

“I just had to chuck them,” Ms Hollis said.

“I thought I can’t risk them catching fire.”

Her roof cavity is still full of ash. Every time a truck thunders past, ash falls from vents in the walls.

It took 45 days to bring the blaze under control and it left a $100 million bill.

A board of inquiry was appointed to investigate what caused the fire, its health implications for people in Morwell and how a repeat can be prevented.

On the first day of public hearings, counsel assisting the inquiry, Melinda Richards, said the risk of fires in the mines had been recognised for 40 years and the Latrobe Valley community bore the brunt of burdens associated with them.

In its findings this week the board said the fire was foreseeable and could have been mitigated, if not prevented, if mine operator GDF Suez had taken better precautions.

The board said the government was slow in advising vulnerable residents to relocate.

Those instructions came on February 28, two days after the Brown family decided they’d rather live in a tent than stay in Morwell and two weeks after air pollution peaked on February 16, when particulate matter reached 28 times recommended levels.

Morwell residents say they’re grateful for the inquiry but have been left largely unsatisfied by its recommendations.

They were hoping for GDF Suez to be told to improve their rehabilitation program.

Of all of the issues raised by the community, they say preventing another fire is the most important.

Latrobe Valley Support Network president Simon Ellis says rehabilitation of the mine is the most effective way to do this.

Covering the exposed coal faces so they can’t catch fire again is vital, he says.

“They need to have that plan in place and its got to be a lot more defined than it currently is,” Mr Ellis told AAP.

“I’m worried because we’re three months from summer and if we get a flare-up, if we get another fire in Gippsland again, I think we’ll have the same situation again,” he said.

“I’m dreading it.”

The company says it has an approved rehabilitation plan and will work with the state regulator to clarify long-term rehabilitation plans.

“Rehabilitation of a mine like ours is a fairly complex thing because of the sequence of mining,” a GDF Suez spokesman said.

“It’s a progressive process. We have activity underway right now.”

The community wants more.

“We think that plan’s got a few holes in it,” Mr Ellis said.

For residents, the company’s attitude towards rehabilitation is similar to the approach they have taken throughout the blaze.

“We want them to say `look, we’ve done the recommendations but we’ve also done this’,” Mr Ellis said.

The company launched a series of initiatives worth more than $1.25 million to support Morwell’s revival.

Mrs Brown says this won’t even begin to repair the damage caused by the fire.

“It doesn’t even come anywhere near what they’ve done,” she said.

Even now, more than six months after the mine fire was declared safe, there is more to do.

Latrobe Valley Support Network members have been going door-to-door with buckets and sponges continuing with the clean-up.

They’re doing simple things like helping people move their furniture so they can clean.

“A lot of the houses, especially weatherboard houses, the soot actually stuck to the house,” Mr Ellis said.

“This process is going to take months before its all finished and done.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien