Originally published at Right Now : Human Rights in Australia
Book review by Samaya Borom
The Coal Face | Penguin Books Australia
On 9 February 2014, a fire started at the Hazelwood coal mine and would continue to burn almost unfettered for nearly two months. During this time, the residents of Morwell and the greater LaTrobe Valley breathed in the toxic smoke and went about their daily business, taking direction from the Department of Health who assured residents of the non-toxicity of the coal mine ash.
The Hazelwood mine fire – one of Australia’s greatest environmental and public health disasters – was completely avoidable, writes Tom Doig in his book The Coal Face. Doig interviews local residents who provide firsthand accounts of the disaster, which because of the time it was left burning, was to have catastrophic consequences on their future health and wellbeing.
Through Doig’s account, it becomes increasingly clear that the fire was able to occur due to what could be referred to as political interest in the region. Hazelwood Mine was a substantial employer in the LaTrobe Valley and in the years and months leading up to the disaster, the promise of economic stability often overruled environmental and public safety concerns.
Doig provides many examples of this, from the privatisation of the mine under the Kennett government when it was to be decommissioned, to the approval of a planning permit that allowed GDF Suez, the owner of the mine, to expand into an area close to eucalypt trees – well known for being highly combustible.
Had the book not been based on real events, it could have almost been labelled a absurd step-by-step case study of what not to do in an environmental disaster; the fact that a mine operated in such close proximity to a town without adequate fire prevention methods in place, or indeed working water pipes, is astounding.
The lack of initial media reportage, or interest in the mine fire outside of the immediate area is also curious. It spurned a grassroots political movement to ensure reporting of the disaster was not further censored by political pressure during an election year. Doig expertly captures the community voice, and in doing so, presents a very real representation of a disaster of mass proportions.
An initial inquiry into the fire was opened on 11 March 2014 by then Premier Napthine, with the final report launching at the Morwell Bowls Club. Doig points out that locals believed it was not exhaustive enough and campaigned to have the inquiry reopened on the basis of new community data that pointed to a spike in deaths around the time of the disaster.
On 25 May 2015, the Hazelwood Mine Fire Enquiry was re-opened with the board of enquiry being lead by the Honorable Bernard Teague. The terms of reference include looking into short, medium and long-term health implications of the mine fire as well as whether rehabilitation options are viable.
The Coal Face is crucial reading for those interested in an analysis of the decades of irresponsible decision-making that culminated in the disaster, as well as a complete rundown of the mismanaged fire, that has now earned the moniker of one of Australia’s greatest environmental disasters.