NEWS For the past month the health-hazardous situation caused by smoke and ash from the deliberately lit fire in a disused Hazelwood coal mine owned by multinational energy company GDF Suez in the La Trobe Valley has been causing havoc in the lives of the residents of the town of Morwell (population 14,000) located 150 km south-east of Melbourne in the State of Victoria. The sizeable Maltese community in this town has also been impacted. The fire has been burning since 9 February.
Victorian Fire Commissioner Craig Lapsley described the high temperatures conditions on 9 February as the worst they had been since Black Saturday when 183 people lost their lives in the 2009 bushfires. February 9 provided the recipe for a perfect fire storm consisting of scorched earth, high winds and excessive heat. About 70 fires were blazing across the state, and almost 150 warnings had been issued. The great fear was of a super conflagration of separate fires.
On 9 February police believe a person, or persons, lit three fires in brown grass along the Strzelecki Highway. Those fires reached the poorly protected coal mine of Hazelwood. A blanket of ash and toxic smoke has covered Morwell in the weeks since, obliging the state’s chief health officer to encourage the young and elderly of Morwell to evacuate, and the state and federal governments to issue relocation grants to residents. Meanwhile, the coal fire has caused all sorts of problems to the firefighters who are grappling with its huge size and complexity. Coal fires can take ages to put out and in the Australian case of the Burning Mountain’s underground coal seam in the State of New South Wales it has smouldered for 6,000 years.
Map of Morwell and its surrounds
Video above: 27/02/14 – Coal mine fire continues to blanket Morwell in Victora in toxic smoke
Last Sunday Fire Services Commissioner Mr Craig Lapsley said that much of the fire had been suppressed overnight, although smoke was still coming from the open-cut mine. The CFA and police got a warm reception with long applause at a rally on Sunday afternoon.
The residents packed out a large hall, where much animosity was directed at the company GDF Suez, which operates the mine. Many residents were calling for the town to be evacuated and for them to be compensated for the effects of the fire on their health. The company, 30 per cent owned by the French government, did not have a representative speaking at the rally.
Among those at the protest was Morwell teacher Erin Gruis, who told the crowd her partner and their four children had been forced to live temporarily with relatives.
She said one of her children had begun coughing and heaving after the smoke and ash began drifting across the town, even though his asthma was not considered severe. Ms Gruis called for stronger leadership for the Morwell community.
The La Trobe Valley consists mainly of the towns of Moe, Morwell and Traralgon and the surrounds. The open-pit coal mine (with coal deposits on the surface of the mine) that is burning is located just on the outskirts of Morwell. Some schools and homes that have now been shut down and evacuated are located very close to the mine. Residents living so close to the mine are being provided with government assistance to leave the area.
This is not the first time that the mine in question, which is no longer being commercially used, has caught fire. It has been on fire on at least another three occasions. But the area in the mind that is ablaze now is much closer to Morwell. Morwell is located in a valley and the smoke from the mine slides down into the valley and covers the town in a blanket of haze.
In an interview that was broadcast on the Maltese program on SBS Radio last Thursday the Vice-Consul of Malta for the La Trobe Valley, who in Morwell, Mr Mario Sammut said that, in a few words, the situation is that the point has been reached where one cannot do anything to change the situation.
Explaining the situation at a personal level, he said that if you lived somewhere where it is hot, you turn on the air conditioner to cool down. If you live somewhere cold, you turn on a heater to warm up. But we are living in a place full of toxic smoke that is causing damage to the health of residents and you cannot get rid of them. We are often told to leave, but one can only leave for some time, one has to come back home. It is not a situation in which one simply packs up everything and goes to live somewhere else.
Mr Sammut said that one does not know how long the fires will be going on for. Not even the firefighters themselves, nor the authorities have any idea of how long it is going to take to put the fires out. In fact, last Wednesday, which was a very windy day, there was again some panic about the fires worsening, having been fanned by strong winds. During the night and on Thursday morning the intensity of the smoke did get worse and it was very difficult to breathe properly.
On the health impact of the situation on the local residents, Mr Sammut said that it was very difficult for anyone to imagine what it is like to be in this situation unless one was physically in such a place. It is as if we are being deceived by the authorities in not being told exactly what is going on and what the adverse health consequences will really be. We are being told that the consequences are minimal as long as it is for a short period of time. But this short period has already been going on for four weeks, he said.
As regards people who already suffer from breathing conditions, such as, asthma, a week after the fires had started, the authorities opened respite centres in public halls, where one can spend a few hours away from the toxic air.
As regards the impact of the situation on the Maltese community of Morwell, Mr Sammut said that an aged care facility in which Maltese residents were living and which he often visited, was not far from the burning mine. This aged care facility has been shut down and all residents moved to another place.
With the closure of some schools situated next to the mine, every morning there are buses taking students to other schools, some even to the next town of Moe ten minutes away by car, which is not affected by the toxic smoke and ash.
Mr Sammut said that the smoke and ash seep into houses and are everywhere inside the house. However, the worst part is not the ash itself, it is the carbon monoxide that is emitted from the burning coal. Carbon monoxide is the worst thing for our lungs. The authorities have been telling residents that the effect of this will not be serious as long as the situation does not persist for too long.
As regards controlling the fire, Mr Sammut said that this fire is not like a bushfire in which trees and undergrowth are burning. In this case, there is a big hole in the voal mine that is on fire and is turning to ashes. What is burning is not at the surface, because fire at the surface can be put out. The fire has penetrated the deeper layers and it keeps on burning itself downwards. This means that water used to put the fire is not able to reach the deeper layers on fire. This is what is causing most damage, that is, the smoke that continues to be emitted from the smouldering deeper layers.
Mr Sammut said that one cannot blame the authorities because the nature of this fire is very different from bushfires. There have been 200 firefighters on duty per shift fighting the fires and they are replaced every two hours due to the poisonous air conditions. The conditions are so bad that some firefighters have to wear oxygen masks. There have been similar fires in the area that lasted for up to six months.
Mr Sammut explained that the conditions in which the firefighters are working are very hazardous. When the lower layers burn out and become ashes, the layers above them drop, so that where they stand may no longer be safe ground.
As regards anger on the part of Morwell residents on the lack of adequate warnings and information about the situation from the authorities, Mr Sammut said that one cannot say that information is not being provided. Frequent press conferences are being held with the State’s Chief Health Commissioner and the Victorian Fire Commissioner providing information and taking questions. However, the problem was that they took too long to provide adequate information. The authorities did not warn the residents that the situation is going to take longer to bring under control and one should start considering to make arrangements to leave Morwell and maybe stay with relatives elsewhere and out of the affected area for, say, a couple of months.
Mr Sammut said that, four weeks after the fires began, the Victorian State government started to provide handouts of $500 per family to enable them to go somewhere and maybe stay in a hotel for two or three days respite. But with $500 one cannot do much these days.
Mr Sammut’s advice to the Maltese outside Morwell was to keep in touch with those living in the affected area. It helps to know that the Maltese in Morwell have not been abandoned and are still part of the Maltese community in the State of Victoria. He said that he received phone calls even from Maltese living in other states of Australia.
In this regard, Mr Sammut thanked the High Commissioner of Malta in Canberra Mr Charles Muscat and the Consul General of Malta for the State of Victoria Mr Victor Grech for keeping in constant contact with him to find out whether they can be of any assistance to the Maltese community in Morwell.
A broadcaster himself on the local community radio station, Mr Sammut said that the station is a refuge for the locals because every bit of information that the station receives about the situation is passed on immediately to their listeners. You’d be surprised how many people listen to the radio, even more than television, in emergency situations such as the current one in Morwell, said Mr Sammut.
[Sources: sbs.com.au/maltese; www.theage.com.au; www.heraldsun.com.au; www.abc.net.au]
See also: Why Morwell is burning – The Saturday Newspaper – 8 March 2014
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