Hazelwood Open-Cut Coal Mine Fire, Australia

The worst disaster in the history of Latrobe Valley led to damage worth more than A$100mn. A fire burnt for 45 days, releasing overwhelming smoke and ash seriously affecting the immediate and long-term health, everyday activities, homes, etc

French owned global energy company Engie (formerly GDF Suez Australian Energy) is the majority owner and manager of the Hazelwood open-cut brown coalmine (south Morwell), which supplies its Hazelwood Power plant. The mine and plant are located in the Latrobe Valley, a region that provides around 85 per cent of Victoria’s electricity, with Hazelwood Power plant providing around 25 per cent. On 9 February 2014 a fire, started by surrounding bushfires, broke out in the Hazelwood mine. According to the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry report [1: 12], that day featured ‘the most extreme weather conditions since Black Saturday’ (see EJOLT case: East Kilmore–Kinglake bushfire ‘Black Saturday’ class action). Brown coal mines are particularly susceptible to fire. This was the worst in the history of Latrobe Valley and led to damage worth more than A$100mn [1]. The fire burnt for 45 days, releasing overwhelming smoke and ash seriously affecting the immediate and long-term health, everyday activities, homes and workplaces of many of Morwell’s 14,000 residents, and surrounding areas. There were periods of ‘significantly elevated levels’ [1: 23] of carbon monoxide (CO) — a toxin which can be asymptomatic — and of particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5), and benzene capable of compromising health, especially respiratory and cardiovascular systems. There were widespread complaints of adverse health effects, including: respiratory, flu-like, headaches, anxiety, and nausea [1: 309]. Although there were no official fatalities, 30 firefighters sought medical treatment [1: 24] and 11 premature deaths have been blamed on the incident [2]. On 21 March 2014 the Victorian Government appointed a board to investigate the entire incident and its impact on Latrobe Valley’s affected communities. The report, delivered on 29 August 2014, identified ‘two emergencies: a major complex fire emergency and a serious public health emergency’ [1: 12]. The board found community health information, monitoring, respite, advice on relocation and relief delayed and inadequate [1: 22]. There was dangerous misinformation on the use of power hoses to clean on and around asbestos [3: 3–4]. Due to likely long-term physical and mental impacts, a 20-year study has started and the inquiry recommended further resources and efforts to improve the health of populations within the Latrobe Valley. The inquiry found the operator ‘inadequately prepared’ [1: 16]. Also, a regulatory change (on 1 January 2008) had left two government agencies with the false impression that the other took main responsibility for such fire emergencies [1: 18]. Poor past town planning means no buffer exists between the mine and adjacent homes, with the town of Morwell existing less than half a kilometre from the open cut coalmine, and flammable plantations. In January 2015 The Victorian government announced 'tough new regulations aimed at reducing the risk of fire' with hefty fines and the threat of losing a license for non-compliance [8]. From the community’s perspective, the inquiry failed to address their concerns. Community submissions to the Inquiry explained ongoing physical and mental health impacts; premature deaths; continued exposure to ash in roof cavities and inside homes; fear about speaking out in a community that is dependent on Hazelwood for their livelihoods; guilt about not evacuating as they and their families experience the ongoing health impacts of the fire; lack of support and sound advice which prevented people from relocating during the fire; entrenched lack of access to healthcare, which is even more critical since the fire; different standards for firefighters, mine workers and the community; financial stress; and a community traumatized from neglect among many other impacts. Due to the lack of justice afforded in the first Inquiry, the community formed Voices of the Valley, conducted their own research, and sought a coronial inquest into deaths with the support of EJO Environmental Justice Australia [7]. With a change of State Government in 2014, the newly elected Labor Government commited to an inquiry into deaths, health and remediation of the mine. The second inquiry found that “it is likely that the Hazelwood mine fire contributed to some of the increase in deaths in the Latrobe Valley in 2014” (Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry 2015, p.74), an inclusive, coordinated and long term approach was required to support the community’s health and wellbeing, and acknowledged options for mine rehabilitation. Morwell is one of Victoria's most disadvantaged populations. Based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Socio-Economic Index for Areas (SEIFA), Morwell and Moe, both in the Latrobe Valley, are in the top 10% of disadvantaged Australian cities, and in fourth and sixth place in Victoria respectively. Vulnerable groups are particularly susceptible to health and socio-economic impacts of such a fire. Complications include long-term and unpredictable impacts, including psychological effects. The extensive existence of fatal asbestos as a building material made cleaning homes highly dangerous and expensive. The fire seriously affected many local businesses and closed some services, such as schools. Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and Slater and Gordon have called for expressions of interest in a class action suit on the Hazelwood mine fire but, as of the end of 2014, no such action had started. Friends of the Earth (Australia) has been particularly concerned that, rather than being decommissioned as had been planned in 2005, ‘Victoria's notorious Hazelwood power plant, the most polluting of all’ was given a 30 year extension by the state government [4]. It supports the ongoing campaign over supporting disadvantaged communities coping with asbestos, especially in the Latrobe Valley and with respect to the aftermath of the Hazelwood mine fire [3]. Similarly, World Wildlife Fund [5], The Greens political party, Environment Victoria and other ENGOS have described Hazelwood as ‘the most polluting of all power stations operating in the world's major industrialised countries’ and advocated for its closure. The power station emits 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) per year and based on emissions intensity, is the most polluting coal fired power station in Australia and the third most polluting in the world (Climate Action Moreland, 2015). Engie announced the closure of the Hazelwood power generation business on 3 November 2016 as the business was no longer economically viable: “ENGIE in Australia would need to invest many hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure viable and, most importantly, continued safe operation. Given current and forecast market conditions, that level of investment cannot be justified” (Engie 2016). Set to close by 31 March 2017, the community has deep fears about the impact of the closure having experienced significant job losses in the past. The power station was originally designed to close in 2005 however the mine was privatised by the Kennett Liberal government in 1996 and sold to International Power (a British energy company that was later taken over by GDF SUEZ in 2010) with an extended licence to 2036 (Doig 2015). Privatization of the power industry resulted in the loss of almost 10,000 energy jobs in the Latrobe Valley, almost a quarter of the local labour force (Weller 2012). The community is now advocating for a just transition from coal and involvement in the transition so their vulnerabilities and strengths underpin the development of the region. HPS is on Gunaikurnai land and the 2011 Census data showed that 1.5% of the population in the Latrobe Valley was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017).
Basic Data
NameHazelwood Open-Cut Coal Mine Fire, Australia
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Coal extraction and processing
Thermal power plants
Specific CommoditiesElectricity
Project Details and Actors
Project Details
1. Company activities (6)
See more...
Project Area (in hectares)1,000+
Level of Investment (in USD)A$2.35bn (1996)
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population14,000+
Start Date09/02/2014
Company Names or State EnterprisesGDF SUEZ Australian Energy from Australia - 72 per cent owner Hazelwood power plant
Mitsui & Co Ltd from Japan - 28 per cent owner Hazelwood power plant
GDF Suez (GDF Suez) from France
Engie (ENGIE) from France
Relevant government actorsCountry Fire Brigade Department of Health

Ambulance Victoria

Victoria Police

Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB)

Emergency Management Victoria

Environmental Protection Authority

Department of Environment and Primary Industries State Emergency Service

Australian Capital Territory Fire and Rescue

New South Wales Fire and Rescue

Tasmanian Fire Services

Queensland Fire Service

Air Services Australia

Mining Regulator

Victorian WorkCover Authority

La Trobe City Council
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersVoices of the Valley-http://www.votv.org.au/

Friends of the Earth (Australia)—http://www.foe.org.au/

Asbestos Council of Victoria & Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc. (GARDS)—http://www.gards.org/

Community Over Mining—http://www.communityovermining.org/

Doctors for the Environment Australia—http://dea.org.au

Environment Victoria—http://environmentvictoria.org.au/

Environmental Justice Australia—https://envirojustice.org.au/

Earthworker Cooperative - http://earthworkercooperative.com.au/
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingIndustrial workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Locals live in one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged municipalities in the state of Victoria
Forms of MobilizationCreation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Global warming, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Groundwater pollution or depletion
OtherImpacts from fire in the open-cut brown coal mine on local homes, businesses, and other services and activities as well as impacts on company property and workers.
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Other Health impacts, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..) , Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Deaths
OtherEspecially long-term health impacts (unexpected, synergistic PM toxicities etc.) were so uncertain that a 20 year study of the affected community has been developed to inform ways future such disasters can be better managed with respect to public health.

The extensive existence of fatal asbestos as a building material made cleaning homes highly dangerous and expensive.
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
OtherSuch disasters affect commercial and residential property prices, tourist sectors etc.
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseInstitutional changes
Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
The inquiry made 18 regulations associated with improving fire prevention and management, community safety and public health.
Development of AlternativesEJOs recommend phasing out the use of electricity from brown coal fields and turning to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

EJOs deplore the carbon emissions that result from brown coal field use and accidents, such as fires.

EJOs support communities coping with asbestos materials in their homes and workplaces, which become particularly dangerous and costly to manage during and after fires.

EJOs support better communication from public bodies to communities to improve decisions to stay or leave or to manage situations caused by such disasters.
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.There are outstanding and ongoing concerns about the lack of appropriate support from government agencies in the face of direct and immediate impacts, as well as long-term and unknown affects, of such a disaster. The 11 premature deaths and anecdotal evidence in the media about the health impacts on families, especially the disadvantaged with no money to relocate or seek appropriate support and treatment, mean that a class action is still possible. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Authority is to upgrade its monitoring equipment and capacity and the Health Department its emergency response capabilities. Other government agencies and the mine operator have also been obliged to improve protocol and readiness for future fire threats, containment and community safety management.
Sources and Materials

As listed in the Bibliography to the HMFI (2014: 429), relevant legislation included:
Constitution Act 1975 (Vic)
Country Fire Authority Act 1958 (Vic)
Crimes Legislation Amendment Act 2010 (Vic)
Electricity Safety Act 1998 (Vic)
Electricity Safety (Bushfire Mitigation) Act 2013 (Vic)
Emergency Management Act 1986 (Vic)
Emergency Management Act 2013 (Vic)
Energy and Resources Legislation Amendment Act 2009 (Vic)
Energy and Resources Legislation Amendment Act 2010 (Vic)
Environment Effects Act 1978 (Vic)
Environment Protection Act 1970 (Vic)
Evidence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1958 (Vic)
Fire Services Commissioner Act 2010 (Vic)
Mineral Resources Development (Mining) Amendment Regulations 2010 (Vic)
Mineral Resources Development Regulations 2002 (Vic) (repealed)
Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990 (Vic)
Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Amendment Act 2014 (Vic)
Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) (Mineral Industries) Regulations 2013 (Vic)
Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic)
Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007 (Vic)
Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Vic)
Protected Disclosure Act 2012 (Vic)
Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic)
Water Act 1989 (Vic)
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[3] GARDS (2014) Hazelwood mine fire disaster. Asbestos News 12(2) August: 1–2.
[click to view]

Alcorn, Gay (2014) Morwell after the mine fire: fear, anger and an independent streak. The Guardian
(18 August).
[click to view]

[6] GDF Suez Group: ‘About Us’, ‘GDF Suez Group’ and ‘Mining Coal’.
[click to view]

[1] Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry (2014) Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report. Victorian Government Printer, Melbourne. [ISBN 978-0-9925618-0-2]
[click to view]

[4] Courtice, Ben (2013) Australia's electricity market: making the polluters profitable. Chain Reaction #117.
[click to view]

[5] WWF Australia (2005) Hazelwood tops international list of dirty power stations. 12 July.
[click to view]

[7] Environmental Justice Australia site with media briefs, submission and blog post (Nicola Rivers)
[click to view]

[2] ABC (2014) 'Victorian coroner will not investigate potential link between Latrobe Valley deaths, Hazelwood mine fire', 14 November.
[click to view]

[8] Whitson, Rhiana (2015) Hazelwood coal mine fire inquiry recommendations prompt tough new regulations. ABC News, 23 January.
[click to view]

Sally Weller (2012) The Regional Dimensions of the ‘Transition to a Lowcarbon Economy’: The Case of Australia's Latrobe Valley, Regional Studies, 46:9, 1261-1272, DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2011.585149

Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2017), “Latrobe Valley (SA3)”, [online], Australian Bureau of Statistics website [accessed 27/2/17]
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Climate Action Moreland, (2015), Replace Hazelwood Primer
[click to view]

Doig, T., (2015), The Coal Face, Penguin, MelbourneHazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, (2015), Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report 2015/2016. Volume II – Investigations into 2009-20014 Deaths, Victorian Government Printer


Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry
[click to view]

Engie, (2016), “Hazelwood to close in March 2017”, [online], GDF Suez website, [accessed 27/2/17]
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Other Documents

Source: ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) Graphics The fire at the Hazelwood Fire Station (2014), which took 45 days to put out, smouldering.
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Fire at the coal mine Engulfed: These pictures shot by the fire service show staggering scenes at Morwell, Victoria, where Australian firefighters have been battling for three weeks to put out a fire which has engulfed the coalmine
Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2569820/Blaze-rages-coal-smokey-disaster-causes-major-health-risk-entire-town.html
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Other CommentsCampaigning continues over the mystery deaths, potential ill-health over decades to come including related to extra asbestos exposures caused by consequences of the fire, importance of the company and state emergency services preventing and managing such fires better in the future
Meta Information
ContributorAnitra Nelson, RMIT University Centre for Urban Research: [email protected]
Last update07/03/2017