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.

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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 Details1. Company activities (6)

The Hazelwood open-cut mine, majority owned by Engie, (formerly GDF Suez Australian Energy), covers more than 1,000ha with a perimeter more than 16km. With its associated Hazelwood power plant producing1542MW, the company covers 3554ha in the Latrobe Valley, employing around 500 staff and another 300 contractors.

The overburden is approximately 18m deep and the coal seam approximately 100m in depth. Three massive laser-directed dredges move away the overburden then dig out and move approximately 18mn tonnes p.a. of brown coal underneath onto 21km-long conveyor systems to power station boilers.

The conveyor system can carry more than 2,000 tonnes of coal per hour and is temporarily stored in a slot bunker of up to 25,000 tonnes for 24/7 supplies. This coal is screened, crushed, relieved of foreign objects and reduced to fine particles blown into the boiler to make around 10TWh p.a. electricity. This plant alone supplies 20–25% of Victoria's electricity (= 5.4% Australian demand), producing around 5% of Australian CO2 emissions. (6)

2. Fire details

The disaster required 7000 fire fighters (1: 297).

A rapid health risk assessment commissioned weeks into the incident failed to take account of the poor health status of Morwell residents, especially in terms of lung cancer and cardio-vascular conditions, with life expectancy in the Latrobe Valley averaging four fewer years for the local population, fifteen years for power industry workers due to exposure to asbestos (Doig 2015), and emergency department presentations and mental health contacts both 45% greater, than the statewide average (1: 24, 251–254). Median household incomes were only 77% of the state figure. Latrobe Valley has had the highest rate of mesothelioma in the state, seven times the average statewide incidence. The vulnerable included those with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, the elderly, disabled, babies and children, pregnant women and their unborn. (1: 23) One quarter of residents closest to the mine was more than 65 years old and one-tenth needed assisting with everyday activities. (1: 254).

The highest validated recording of PM2.5 (21 February) was approximately 16 times the daily National Ambient Air Quality standard and the highest indicative recording (15 and 16 February) was approximately 28 times greater (1: 277). During the disaster some residents with asbestos-related lung disease were unable to evacuate and needed extra equipment and support (3: 1, 3). Long-term effects, which will be monitored, are likely to include ‘respiratory conditions, effects on cardiac conduction, increased risk of heart attack, stroke and lung cancer, long-term cognitive decline and psychosocial effects’ (1: 24).
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.
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[8] Whitson, Rhiana (2015) Hazelwood coal mine fire inquiry recommendations prompt tough new regulations. ABC News, 23 January.
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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 update12/08/2018