A rethink needed on Hazelwood mine fire

The Victorian Government needs to rethink its rejection of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry’s recommendation to rapidly respond to air quality data.

The Victorian Government needs to rethink its rejection of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry’s recommendation that air quality monitoring data be used to inform rapid decision making on public health issues.

The appointment of an independent inquiry to examine the causes and management of the Hazelwood coal mine fire was significant and appropriate to the disaster.

Headed by former Supreme Court judge Bernard Teague, who also headed up the Bushfire Royal Commission, the inquiry was a detailed forensic examination of the causes and management of the fire, informed by expert advice from within the bureaucracy and outside of it.

The result of the inquiry is a range of recommendations intended to avoid future disasters, as well as ensure that future incidents of a similar nature are better managed. The Victorian government has fully accepted all of the inquiry’s recommendations – except one.

The recommendation that the Victorian government has baulked at accepting is recommendation five.  Recommendation five responds to the significant issues that arose in the Hazelwood fire in relation to the collection of air pollution data and the implementation of actions based on that data.

The recommendation is as follows:

“The State equip itself to undertake rapid air quality monitoring in any location in Victoria to:

– collect all relevant data, including data on PM2.5, carbon monoxide and ozone; and

– ensure this data is used to inform decision-making within 24 hours of the incident occurring.”

Interviewed on ABC radio this week, Deputy Premier Peter Ryan attempted an explanation why this recommendation has not been accepted in full. According to Mr Ryan, the government fully accepts the first part – rapid collection of relevant data – but has rejected the second part – promptly using this data to inform decision making – as “impractical”.

We really need a much better explanation as to why the government has put this recommendation in the too-hard basket. 

To understand the issues here it is instructive to consider the context for the recommendation in light of the inquiries findings in its report.

Firstly the inquiry accepted that the air pollution caused by the Hazelwood mine fire was a serious health issue. The pollutants released by the fire caused not only significant distress but have the potential to cause short and long term health problems, according to the evidence the inquiry heard from the local community and health experts.

The inquiry undertook a meticulous day-by-day examination of the disaster as it unfolded. In particular it scrutinised the actions of the Environment Protection Authority and the Department of Health in collecting pollution data and responding to it in terms of the information and advice provided to the community of Morwell.  

Communities such as Morwell expect the government to “have their back on air pollution” – to actually protect them. As the inquiry pointedly notes “Exposure to air pollutants is largely beyond the control of individuals and requires action by public authorities”.

The action by public authorities in relation the Hazelwood fire was found wanting.   In its approach collecting pollution data that should have been used to inform the response of other agencies such as the Department of Health, the inquiry found that the EPA put “scientific rigour” ahead of “flexibility” and the need to rapidly collect the data necessary to protect the community from pollution.  

There are worse things that a pollution regulation agency could be accused of than taking the science seriously, however it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that the EPA’s approach here represents a more general failure of governments to take the health impacts of air pollution sufficiently seriously, particularly air pollution related to the burning of coal.

The lack of rapid collection of data to inform health agency responses caused considerable distress and harm to the local community. 

The inquiry report presents a compelling case as to why recommendation five was necessary.  Air pollution from disasters such as the Hazelwood fire is a significant issue.  Rapid collection of air pollution data is essential to an appropriate health response. 

However this alone is not enough – there needs also be a commitment to act on the data collected.  Which makes the governments rejection of the second element all the more perplexing – why collect the data but refuse to commit to using it to quickly provide affected communities with advice and information?

The community of Morwell and all Victorians deserve a far more detailed explanation from the Victorian government.   Important recommendations from independent inquiries such as this one should not be put in the too hard basket, and peremptorily dismissed as “impractical”.

A rethink is required.  Committing to collect critical data about air pollution in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is critical, failing to commit to act on it makes no sense.   The government’s failure to fully accept the inquiry’s recommendations risks a repeat of the distress and harm experienced by the community of Morwell.

Brendan Sydes is a lawyer and CEO of Environmental Justice Australia