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 .
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 .
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 .
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 . 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 . 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 . Similarly, World Wildlife Fund , 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).