March 23, 2016 - 4:10 PM EDT
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The impact of environmental disaster and the injustice of a community left behind

In This Changes Everything, climate change activist Naomi Klein identified something that few people would openly admit, but most know deep down. Industrialisation lifted the living standards of millions, and the key to it was cheap energy. Yet a few people bore a heavier cost than the rest of us for industries that were always polluting. 

Klein called them “sacrifice zones”, or “middle of nowheres”, those communities living right next to coal mines, for instance, who may have had employment for a time but who suffered disproportionately, out of sight and out of mind.

“For a very long time,” Klein writes, “sacrifice zones all shared a few elements in common. They were poor places. Out of the way places. Places where residents lacked political power, usually having to do with some combination of race, language and class. And the people who lived in these condemned places knew they had been written off.”

Morwell in eastern

is one of those places. The Hazelwood open cut coal mine for some reason was built just a few hundred metres from the town’s southern side – you can stand on the edge of town and see the giant gash just across the road. It services the nearby Hazelwood power station, an ageing behemoth, yet one that still produces around a quarter of Victoria’s base load electricity needs.

Related: Is

the last country standing in defence of coal? | Bill McKibben

Hazelwood is a brown coal mine – a lower grade than black coal – and so it is especially polluting. By one estimate the power station on its own accounts for 15% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Morwell sits in the Latrobe Valley where there are four big brown-coal power stations, the dirtiest and and least efficient in the country, according to a report by the Australian Conservation Foundation. Hazelwood is the worst of them all. 

With the

climate agreement aiming to limit the global temperature rise to “well below” 2C, the vast majority of fossil fuels – the major contributor to global warming – will need to stay in the ground. Neither the conservative parties nor Labor will commit to that, although renewable energy seems again in favour with Malcolm Turnbull’s government.

After the

agreement, the Climate Institute’s John Connor said there was an “ elephant in the room ” if
had any hope of meeting its targets. 

“The government and indeed the Australian Labor Party need to be more explicit about how we are going to replace our ageing and inefficient coal fired power stations with clean energy,” he said.

He was talking about the Latrobe Valley, and said that the power stations had to be phased out far more quickly than anyone had planned. The Hazelwood power station is 50 years old, and has a license to keep operating until 2026. So far, there are no plans to bring that date forward.

Amidst all of this sits Morwell, a town of 14,000 that would have continued to be an anonymous “sacrifice zone” if it were not for the February 2014 fire in the coal mine that spewed smoke and ash over the town for 45 days.

That brought national attention and caused a good many citizens to think deeply about the cost of living next door to an open cut coal mine. Some even began to ponder a future without coal – although many still can’t imagine it.

The former coalition Victorian government launched an inquiry into the fire and Daniel Andrews’ Labor government re-opened it, to look specifically at whether the fire increased the death rate in the Latrobe Valley, how to improve the health of the people and how to rehabilitate mines once they finished. 

The last of the inquiry’s reports – on rehabilitation – is due next month but for almost two years the inquiry has opened a window not just on the immediate impact of the one of the worst environmental disasters in the state’s history, but on a region that has been seriously left behind despite contributing so much to Victoria’s and Australia’s prosperity.

Here’s a little of what it heard. There are “stark differences” in health between people of the Latrobe Valley and the rest of the state. Both men and women die earlier than people in other areas – 3.4 years earlier for men, 2.2 for women. It has seven times the state average for asbestos-related disease, due to the use of the material in the early days of the power stations. With all of that, it has fewer GPs and specialists than the Victorian average.

Morwell is one of the most disadvantaged towns in the country. Quit

told the inquiry that the Latrobe Valley community had an “imminent and existing large-scale respiratory health problem” due to exposure to air pollution and high rates of smoking. The inquiry found that the fire itself had significant health impacts, particularly for those with existing conditions.

It also accepted expert evidence that “it is likely” that there was an increase in deaths and that “the most likely explanation” for at least some of those deaths was was air pollution from the fire and possibly bushfires raging at the same time.

But the issues are deeper than the fire. The Australian Medical Association stated: “The risks withstood are not just those related to the exposure to harmful environmental factors arising from the 45-day fire causing a state of emergency, but also because of the ever present risks from harmful levels of air pollution due to proximity to the mining operations of the coal industry.”

What comes through the inquiry’s reports is a sense of guilt about what has happened to Morwell. The government has commissioned a 20-year health study into the impacts of the fire, and the inquiry has recommended that the Latrobe Valley be declared a “special health zone”, with $60m to be spent in improving its heath and its quality of life.

Central to improving health, the inquiry says, is that governments “develop a long-term plan around the transition of industry away from coal mining and coal-fired power generation”. You can’t have one without the other.

It has taken a long time, but the majority owners of the mine and the power station, French energy giant Engie – known as GDF Suez in

– are beginning to be held to account, although they are fighting all the way. The inquiry’s first report found that the fire was “entirely foreseeable” and that the operators took a “minimal compliance” attitude towards fire risk.

In February, WorkSafe, which oversees workplace safety laws, charged the company with 10 alleged breaches of the law including failing to provide a safe workplace and exposing people other than its employees to health risks. GDF Suez is also fighting attempts to recover the millions in fire-fighting costs that the state bore during the disaster. 

And this month the Environment Protection Agency brought 12 air pollution charges against companies that operate the mine, including that they polluted the atmosphere to such an extent it was “harmful or potentially harmful to the health, welfare, safety or property of human beings.”

Related: Morwell mine fire inquiry points finger at operator GDF Suez

The inquiry’s final report will be about rehabilitating the mine once it closes. This is a looming issue across the country as mines begin to shut. It is the responsibility of the mine license holder to pay for the site to be rehabilitated so that it is useable in the future, and the Victorian government holds a $15m bond for Hazelwood’s clean up in case the company defaults.

Everyone agrees that it is woefully inadequate. GDF Suez itself says it will cost around $73m, and one report prepared for the government estimated rehabilitating Hazelwood alone would cost $250m.

So what would the people of Morwell like to see once the Hazelwood mine and power station close down? They have ideas. An Environment Victoria workshop in Morwell heard suggestions about a motorsport complex, perhaps a concert venue, a giant lake, or even a botanic gardens.

Some are wondering whether the Latrobe Valley could stay in the energy business, but this time it could be a centre for clean energy. It could continue the region’s contribution to the state’s and the nation’s prosperity, but without the cost to its own people. Surely, after all this, we owe that to Morwell.

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Source: News (March 23, 2016 - 4:10 PM EDT)

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