Morwell coal mine fire: Napthine govt must act to protect the community's health first

Morwell coal mine fire: Napthine govt must act to protect the community's health first

Socialist Alliance Victoria statement on the fire in the Hazelwood coal mine

1. Protect residents' health

The mine fire that has been burning since February 9 is an immediate and serious threat to the health of residents in Morwell and other towns in the vicinity of the Hazelwood mine.

Immediate health threats include:

  • Elevated levels of carbon monoxide, a toxic gas.
  • Fine particulate pollution in the PM2.5 and PM10 size range.
  • Ash fallout over the area, potentially containing many toxic compounds.
  • Carcinogenic compounds in ash and particulates.

These pollutants are a direct health threat to everyone, and especially children and those with existing lung or heart conditions. State government departments and schools have already begun relocating. Residents have been told to leave the area if they can, but more support is needed. No-one should be forced to stay living, working or studying in the area affected.

We call for:

1. The state government must declare a state of emergency and provide transport and accommodation support for residents to evacuate away from the air pollution.
2. No-one should be required to return to their homes and jobs until a cleanup of the ash fallout has occurred to prevent ongoing exposure to pollutants.
3. Mine workers should not be required to work in the mine with exposure to toxic gases and other pollutants, even if this means shutting down the power station until the fire is out.

2. No unnecessary restrictions on firefighting

It has been stated that the firefighters must balance the water being brought into the mine (and dumped on the fire) with the ability to pump water out of the mine. Early in the fire it was stated that this was necessary to maintain power supply. It has also been stated that too much water may affect the integrity of mine walls.
The power station could be closed, temporarily, while the fire is being fought. It is possible to source enough electricity from other power stations, and from interstate, to supply state, even with one large power station offline – as was demonstrated during the flooding of the Yallourn coal mine two years ago.

We call for:

  • No excuses – close the power station if needed, until the fire is out.
  • Health and safety of firefighters, workers and the general public must be first consideration, then putting out the fire.

3. Ministers resign! Full inquiry and compensation

The failure of the government to treat this disaster with the appropriate level of seriousness, which would mean declaring a state of emergency early on, is scandalous and negligent.

The mine caught fire easily because an unused section had exposed coal seams and no sprinkler system to keep them wet. This points to negligence and irresponsible cost-cutting by the private operators, and failure on the part of government regulators.

The EPA's air quality monitoring system has been shown to be woefully inadequate. Major population centres such as Morwell had no dedicated monitoring stations. Monitoring is often incomplete, not measuring all particulate sizes, toxic gases, or other hazards such as volatile organic compounds.

We call for:
1. Immediate resignation of the state Health Minister, David Davis MLC, and the Emergency Services minister, Kim Wells MP, for failing to protect the community.
2. Judicial inquiry into the mine fire to determine culpability for creating the situation that made it possible.
3. Inspect all coal mines around the state to ensure fire threats are removed elsewhere.
4. Residents and businesses to be compensated, by the mine operators before the public purse, for all necessary relocation, health and cleanup expenses.
5. All residential areas near major pollution sources (power stations, mines, industrial facilities, major roads etc) need air quality monitoring stations, with results for the full range of pollutants publicly available.
6. Air quality needs enforceable standards for all pollutants, including PM2.5 particles for which there is currently only an advisory standard.

4. Energy security, future jobs for the Latrobe Valley

The running down of the coal power stations under private ownership, and the failure by successive state governments to develop a new power industry in clean, renewable energy, jeopardises the state's energy security, but also the communities of the Latrobe Valley that depend on the power industry for local employment.

This disaster, or another such disaster or breakdown in the future (like the recent flooding of the Yallourn mine) could cause sudden closure of power stations. The government must take immediate steps to protect the community and develop future energy and employment opportunities for the region and for the state.

We call for

1. State government loans scheme for homes to install solar photovoltaic panels. Increase the feed-in tariff for solar power to a fair payment for the electricity generated.
2. Government sponsored, free training programs for Latrobe Valley workers in rooftop solar panel installation.
3. Remove Baillieu's anti-windfarm laws, and begin construction on wind farms already holding planning permits (with government support such as loan guarantees).
4. Source as many wind turbine components locally as possible, supporting new manufacturing here.
5. Plan for the transition away from polluting coal power to a mix of renewable energy sources. Establish the state's first baseload solar thermal power station in the state's northwest.
6. Bring the power stations back into public ownership, with workers' entitlements guaranteed, and the ability for workers to choose to retire or transfer to another facility if or when coal power stations are closed down.

If the state government took responsibility, the health of the community, future employment, and the state's energy security can be protected and enhanced.

The current government is failing on all counts, letting private owners profit from running down the state's infrastructure and polluting our health and the environment.

We ask Victorians to reject the Liberal/National coalition at the state election this year, and vote for parties such as Socialist Alliance that prioritise protecting community health, jobs for the state, and a transition to clean renewable energy to protect the environment.

We welcome your feedback, applications for membership or requests for further information:

Socialist Alliance Victoria
PO Box 12427, A'Beckett St, 8006
Floor 5, 407 Swanston St, Melbourne
Phone: Office (03) 9639 8622
Email: victoria@socialist-alliance.org