The out-of-control burning of an abandoned coal mine is threatening the health of thousands. Children are exposed and vulnerable and there are suggestions of corporate malfeasance. It’s visible, it’s dramatic, and it’s hurting people. It’s also coal, the energy life-blood of Australia and much of the world. Predictably, it’s a big deal in Victoria and otherwise the event has received minimal attention compared to Fukushima. This reminds us again that the great dangers of coal are made all the worse for their lack of novelty, which breeds a collective complacency and acceptance of serious hazards.
For the last 15 days, an energy disaster of spectacular proportions has been unfolding in the La Trobe valley region of Victoria, in south-eastern Australia.
Following terrible bushfires that accompanied our record-breaking, scorching hot summer, an abandoned section of the Morwell brown coal mine caught fire and has been burning ever since.
The fire is raging across approximately 3 km of the old mine. It appears to be very difficult to control. There are (not yet officially confirmed) reports that fire-fighting equipment of the necessary calibre for such an event was removed from the old mine some time ago. Firefighters are reportedly needing to limit their exposure due to the threat of radiant heat and carbon monoxide, and also limit the input of water to prevent collapse of the mine face itself.
Meanwhile residents of Morwell are suffering. This is no invisible menace. Thick smoke has blanketed the town. Ash is falling from the sky. Residents are falling ill. Local health centres are reporting a five-fold increase in respiratory complaint. School children are being billeted outside the town to protect their health, and residents at large have been recommended to leave Morwell over the weekend if possible to “get some respite”. Advice provided from the Chief Health Officer, Dr Rosmary Lester, reinforces the seriousness of the hazard , at least in the short term.
Of special concern is the concentration of fine particles. The spokesperson for the Victorian EPA advises “These of course are being blown up from the mine whenever there is a west-south-westerly wind. We’re seeing PM 2.5 particles; they’re those really small particles that you can’t even see but get stuck in your lungs. They’re the ones that are of course of concern, and we ask people to bunker down, to get some respite if they can, get out of Morwell across the weekend”.
To assist residents in managing the situation, the EPA has, to their great credit, quickly upgraded the provision of information from their monitoring stations to an hour-by-hour graphical and data representation on their website. It is concerning that there would appear to be no monitoring in relation to the PM 2.5 and little monitoring in relation to the PM 10. Residents will need to make inferences from the other ratings and their own observations and experiences.
There are the suggestions of corporate and regulatory malfeasance in relation to the condition of the abandoned mine. This large, exposed face of coal appears to have been left largely unrehabilitated and exposed to the entirely realistic risk of bushfire, with the necessary fire-fighting equipment allegedly withdrawn.
So far, the decision remains that the health hazards are manageable and evacuation is not an appropriate measure. This is a very difficult decision and an important one. As we have learned (I hope) all too well from Fukushima, evacuation itself poses grave hazards for the vulnerable and brings with it a whole host of stressors. It is completely appropriate for authorities to weigh these realities in their considerations. How tragic that the dread of radiation spurred such an over-reaction compared to the measured response on display in relation to the risk of smoke.
Somewhat contradictorily, we are advised that there are unlikely to be long term health impacts of concern from this event, based on the advice, again, of Dr Rosmary Lester. I sincerely hope this to be the case and that the residents of Morwell can have their town back to normal as soon as possible. I note that this advice must co-exist with the other advice, from the same source, indicating that this is a serious acute (i.e. short-term) hazard for the most vulnerable.
The event is promoting cartoonist humour of a similar hue to the smoke…
To the residents of Morwell, I’m thinking of you as you struggle with this event. Let’s all hope the impacts can be kept to a minimum and residents can remain in good health. This event, and what you are putting up with deserves more attention.
It is my hope that the event might spur more evidence-based considerations of the relative hazards of our energy choices in future.
My thanks and acknowledgement to the ABC in particular for their coverage of the event.