A fire burning at Victoria’s Hazelwood coal mine is exposing local residents to dangerously high levels of pollution, poisonous gases and fine, airborne particles which can cause illness, say doctors.
On Saturday, the Environmental Protection Authority recorded an air quality reading of 1326 for parts of the Latrobe Valley, about 90 minutes south east of Melbourne. Anything above 150 is considered “very poor”.
Local medicos said residents were breathing in toxic gases like carbon monoxide and heavy metals such as mercury. Dr Peter Tait of the Public Health Association of Australia said authorities should put every effort into extinguishing the fire, which has been burning since February 9, to reduce the risk to people’s health.
“We know from the extensive health and medical literature over many decades that burning coal poses serious adverse health risks for people in proximity to power stations and even for communities quite distant from the source,” said Dr Tait.
With air quality deteriorating over the weekend, Colin Butler, a professor of public health at University of Canberra, questioned why residents of Morwell had not been ordered to leave the district.
Air quality index Morwell Vic again exceeds 1000 (1326) 18.00-19.00 tonight Why don’t authorities evacuate town? http://t.co/lm5WiKij0C
— Colin David Butler (@ColinDavdButler) February 22, 2014
But the Country Fire Authority told The New Daily there was no timeframe for extinguishing the blaze, which is partly burning underground.
“The fire will not be extinguished in days,” said a spokesperson at the State Control Centre. “It is more likely to be weeks, but we cannot say when the fire is expected to be out.”
Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber said Morwell should be declared a state of emergency as smoke continued to blanket the town.
“The first responsibility of a government is to protect its people and that is not happening in Morwell,” Mr Barber said.
Victorian Health Minister David Davis denied this and said the situation was being treated as an emergency.
While the EPA measures air quality, it does not monitor the levels of fine particles being released into the atmosphere, which Dr Jo McCubbin says can be very harmful to human health.
“They are so small that they may get into the blood stream via the lungs and can be transported beyond heart and lungs, to sites like brain and kidneys,” Dr McCubbin, a local paediatrician, wrote in a letter to Victorian Deputy Premier Peter Ryan.
“Airborne pollutants may be inhaled, or may deposit on our veggies or into rivers and reservoirs, so we may inhale, drink or eat them too.”
Dr Tait said decisions at Hazelwood by the state government and the mine operators had put the local community at risk. In particular, the removal of a sprinkler system which may have helped to contain the blaze.
“The government has allowed firefighting sprinkler equipment to be removed, leading to such a serious situation for public health. Further rehabilitation of the mine site, which would have removed this threat, had not been undertaken,” he said.
“This is a serious failure of government to ensure infrastructure is in place to protect the health of Victorians.
“We know from the extensive health and medical literature over many decades that burning coal poses serious adverse health risks for people in proximity to power stations and even for communities quite distant from the source.”
The CFA acknowledged that the fire was difficult to manage, and that efforts to tame it must balance the requirements of the local community with the costs of shutting down critical infrastructure, like the coal-fired power station which sits close to the fire site.
The CFA spokesperson said one way of extinguishing the fire – flooding the mine – was not feasible because it would halt production at the mine and could shutdown the power station, which produces about 25 per cent of Victoria’s base load electricity.