Hundreds of residents have rallied in Victoria’s Morwell where a coal mine is on fire, demanding a royal commission into what they say is a lack of action by authorities.
Protest leader Nerissa Albon said 1200 people had turned out to the rally, united in frustration over living in the smoke-affected town where a blaze at the Hazelwood open cut coal mine has been burning since February 9.
“Everybody’s sick of their eyes stinging, they’re sick of sore throats, they’re sick of their houses being covered,” she told AAP.
Demonstrators want a royal commission into what they say is a delayed government response, real assistance to leave the area and lack of fire safety infrastructure in the disused part of the mine which is ablaze.
Greens Senator Richard Di Natale, who spoke at the rally, said locals were right to be angry over conflicting health messages.
He accused the state government of a lack of leadership on the issue, saying a state of emergency should have been declared within days of the fire starting.
“We knew that the impacts of the smoke from this fire would have serious acute health impacts and quite possibly very serious longer term impacts,” he told reporters in Morwell.
“The question is, what sort of exposure are we going to allow the people of Morwell to be exposed to before we act?”
— Nine News Melbourne (@9newsmelb) March 2, 2014
Dr Di Natale, a former GP who last year led a Senate inquiry into health impacts of air pollution, said Premier Denis Napthine needed to ask Prime Minister Tony Abbott for disaster relief assistance.
Mine operator, GDF Suez, had a social responsibility to the residents but was also missing in action, he said.
Health Minister David Davis said the situation was being handled professionally, based on best advice.
“The chief health officer has issued advisories on the basis of the evidence that’s available, on the basis of the best possible advice,” he told reporters.
Mr Davis said the government will provide whatever assistance is reasonable and health department officers will individually assess each family.
Chief Health Officer Rosemary Lester advised on Friday that people over 65, preschool-age children, pregnant women and those with a pre-existing heart or lung condition should move from Morwell South as the fire will most likely not be extinguished in the next 10 days as first thought.
The state government will hold an independent inquiry into the fires.