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Issue #1643      June 18, 2014

Hazelwood fire

Profits before workers and their families’ health

Governments and companies consider coal-fired power stations a cheap form of electricity; they do not consider the cost of local health or environmental impact on the community. Evidence given at the Hazelwood coal mine fire inquiry shows how reprehensible capitalism is towards coal mining and electrical generation communities.

Scientific information clearly shows that all residents should have been evacuated soon after the fire started.

The Technical Review Board (TRB) annual report, delivered to the Victorian government in September 2012, found Latrobe Valley mine rehabilitation measures fell well short of what could reasonably be considered as adequate for achieving long term safety and stability. The TRB also identified three trouble spots in the Victorian state’s brown coal network that were still at risk of failure, nearly two years after recommendations by the inquiry into Greenfields Mineral Exploration and Project Development in Victoria.

The slow pace of rehabilitation of the Valley’s spent mine areas has been a point of fierce criticism since the Hazelwood mine fire. The Napthine government must be condemned for its inaction. State government departments did not do enough to ensure the coal company had proper fire prevention plans and equipment in place.

Little concern shown

The state’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Rosemary Lester, publicly was saying after two weeks of toxic smoke had been blowing across Morwell that “people may experience coughing, wheezing and irritation”. Not a word about the horrendous long term consequences after exposure to the toxic smoke that contains particulate matter, which can penetrate deep into the lungs, fumes that contain heavy metals and gases including radon that can cause a whole range of health outcomes that no one would ever want.

Reported in The Age newspaper on February 26, 2014, Dr Lester said “pregnant women in the community are not at risk. Carbon monoxide is being constantly monitored across the town and there haven’t been any levels of concern.” Dr Lester’s message did change on February 28 – the advice for vulnerable residents was to temporarily relocate. She told the inquiry “the decision was based on an increase in the fine particle levels and the length of time communities had been exposed. I was not willing to let this go on further and we really needed to issue that advice.”

When Ms Richards, assisting the inquiry, questioned why Dr Lester did not give that advice in the first week of the fire, Dr Lester said evacuation presents its own risks. “I think the advice we provided was proportional to the level of risk and escalated according to the time people were exposed in the smoke,” Dr Lester replied.

Scientific information clearly shows that all residents should have been evacuated soon after the fire started.

Vital information withheld

Firefighters were monitoring the exposure levels in the community. The readings of carbon monoxide (CO) were constantly above the 30 parts per million (ppm). Peter Marshall, the national secretary of the United Fire Fighters Union, raised concern about community safety and discussed evacuating the town of Morwell, only to see the CO standard increased from 30 to 70 ppm at a subsequent meeting of fire personnel and Health Department officials. Mr Marshall said CO levels were not made available to the community during the fire and demanded that the inquiry into the fire investigate the decision to change the air safety standard.

Other deadly toxic gases

While the emphasis has been on the level of CO, completely ignored were two other toxic gases released from the combustion of coal. Sulphur dioxide causes acute symptoms, is a lung irritant, triggers asthma and low birth weight in infants. Chronic symptoms include reduced lung function, associated with premature death. Nitrogen oxide causes acute symptoms, changed lung function and increased respiratory illness in children. Chronic symptoms include increase in susceptibility to respiratory illness and permanent alteration of lung function.

Toxic coal dust

Trace and other elements formed in coal combustion including a large group of diverse pollutants with a number of health and environmental effects. They are a public health concern because, at sufficient levels, they adversely affect human health. Some are known carcinogens, others impair reproduction and the normal development of children and still others damage the nervous and immune systems. Many are also respiratory irritants that can worsen respiratory conditions such as asthma. They are of environmental concern because they damage ecosystems; they blow dust containing heavy metals and disperse toxic gases.

Exposure to pollution from coal power stations may occur from direct inhalation or indirect exposure, i.e. subsequent ingestion of water, soil, vegetation, or meat, eggs, dairy products and fish contaminated through accumulation in the food chain (US EPA, 1998).

Pollutants for which indirect exposure is especially important include mercury, arsenic, dioxins, cadmium, and lead. Pollutants are absorbed and distributed in the body and may produce systemic effects distant from the entry point of the lungs. As a result, organs other than the lungs, e.g. the central nervous system, brain, blood, liver and kidneys can be affected by air pollutants.

Adults in coal mining communities have been found to have:

  • Higher rates of mortality from lung cancer, chronic heart, respiratory and kidney diseases.
  • Higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases, hypertension, kidney disease, heart attack and stroke, and asthma.
  • Increased probability of hospitalisation for COPD (by 1 percent for each 1,462 tons of coal mined) and for hypertension by (1 percent for each 1,873 tons of coal mined).
  • Poorer self-rated health status and reduced quality of life.

Children and infants in coal mining communities have been found to have:

  • Increased respiratory symptoms including wheezing, cough and absence from school with respiratory symptoms, although not all studies reported this effect.
  • High blood levels of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium.
  • Higher incidence of neural tube defects, a higher prevalence of any birth defects, and a greater chance of being of low birth weight (a risk factor for future obesity, diabetes and heart disease).

Adults (and the whole population) in communities near coal-fired power stations and coal combustion facilities have been found to have:

  • Increased risk of death from lung, laryngeal and bladder cancer.
  • Increased risk of skin cancer (other than melanoma).
  • Increased asthma rates and respiratory symptoms.

Children, infants and foetal outcomes in communities near coal-fired power stations and coal combustion facilities have been found to have:

  • Oxidative deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) damage.
  • Higher rates of pre-term birth, low birth weight, miscarriages and stillbirths.
  • Impaired foetal and child growth and neurological development.
  • Increased asthma rates and respiratory symptoms.

Above data from study Sydney University (Colagiuri R Cochrane J Girgis S Health and Social Harms of Coal. Mining in Local Communities, Spotlight on the Hunter Region, Beyond Emissions, Melbourne, October 2012).

Cancer statistics a terrible legacy

Cancer statistics from the Cancer Council Victoria show that for the Latrobe Valley 884 people were diagnosed with cancer, 498 were men and 386 were women, and 360 died from 2008 to 2010. In future years, we may well see a spike in this number as full effects from inhalation of toxic dust from the fire take a number of years to develop.

Slow response

The inquiry heard from a former chief executive, John Merritt, who said the organisation’s role had never been to quickly mobilise air-monitoring equipment. The first dust sampling readings began in the town’s south three to four days after the fire began when a dust track was installed at the Morwell Bowling Club. A mobile lab was not brought online at the club until a week later, the inquiry heard.

The Environmental Justice report released in May 2014 details the steps governments should take to reduce the effects of air pollution. The author, Nicola Rivers, said there had been concerns about air pollution laws for a while, but the mine fire highlighted the implications of ongoing delays from state and federal governments for many years and the lack of national leadership.

Mr Merritt said the dust exposure standard was only advisory, not a compliance standard. The standard had not been affirmed nationally because of disagreement within the scientific community, with some taking the view there may be “no safe level of exposure”.

Every day in Morwell levels of particulate matter of 2.5 microns are high even without the fire. The Council of Australian Governments has been promising a National Plan for Clear Air since 2011. The Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt recently announced development of the plan would be delayed until at least 2016.

Political and industrial action is required from workers and unions, with public support, to force the federal government into action for improved air quality.

Next article – Culture & Life – The sacrifice of 27 million

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