Three days of testimony before the re-opened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry have just concluded.
Environmental Justice Australia has represented local community group Voices of the Valley throughout the process of getting the inquiry re-opened to consider the crucial question: Did deaths occur as a result of the mine fire in the months after it occurred?
These hearings are of huge importance to the people of the Latrobe Valley. Questions about whether exposure for several weeks to the air pollution caused by the fire has resulted in deaths or serious health problems have plagued local residents since February 2014 when a cloud of toxic smoke blanket the area. Local people feel that breathing this polluted air caused a spike’ in deaths in the area.
The fact that the Hazelwood Mine Fire inquiry was reopened shows the health effects of air pollution caused by coal are a serious concern of the community.
The Latrobe Valley community has fought hard to find the truth about the fire and its impacts. They have collected evidence and found the experts needed to interpret it. They have told their own stories, even when governments have been reluctant to listen.
The Inquiry commenced with a community member describing to the Inquiry the process of community members conducting their own citizen science research to try to determine whether there had been a spike in deaths in the months following the fire. Latrobe Valley resident and Voices of the Valley member Ron Ipsen explained to the Inquiry how Voices of the Valley spent days and days researching death notices in the local paper, and ascertaining data from Births, Deaths and Marriages, to see if the data reflected the stories being told in the community of people dying as a result of the fire. When they found that it did, and obtained expert analysis from Associate Professor Barnett that confirmed their findings, the government, including the Department of Health, initially responded by telling them they were wrong. This lead to the community further losing trust in the Department. “To be honest, the community lost faith in the DOH (Department of Health) very early in the piece.”, said Mr Ipsen.
The hearings made it evident that, when the work of Voices of the Valley and the analysis of Associate Professor Barnett showed that there may have been an increase in deaths as a result of the mine fire, the Department of Health responded by obtaining expert advice challenging their claims, rather than seriously investigate the issue of whether deaths occurred as a result of the fire. The evidence given in the Inquiry has been largely consistent with the concerns of Voices of the Valley and the expert analysis done by Associate Professor Barnett.
The Inquiry also heard from medical experts and experts in statistics. These expert witnesses testified that there is evidence that death rates in the Latrobe Valley increased around the time of the fire.
Expert analysis by Professor Ian Gordon, based on deaths data for 2009-2013, found there would only be a 1 in 65 probability that the number of deaths that were recorded between February and June 2014 could be expected to be as high as they were. In other words, there was an unusually high number of deaths during and shortly after the coal mine fire.
Ultimately, the experts agreed that there is evidence for a higher mortality in the Latrobe Valley in February to June 2014 - during and shortly after the Hazelwood Mine Fire, than during the same period for 2009-2013. Importantly, they also agreed that a probable cause of the higher mortality rate was exposure to particulate pollution, emitted by the mine fire.
Experts also agreed that there were more emergency hospital admissions during the period of the mine fire than for the same period in 2013.
Mine owner GDF-Suez still haven’t said sorry to the local community. Instead, they participated in the inquiry by vigorously questioning the independent view of the experts.
Despite all their tireless work, the community still haven’t got justice. The people of the Latrobe Valley want the truth. They want to understand what happened and why. And they want those responsible to be held accountable for what they have suffered.