For more than eight weeks, the fire at the Hazelwood open-cut coal mine in Victoria spewed toxic smoke and ash across Morwell. Meanwhile the state Liberals and the company that own the mine, GDF Suez, spewed out deception and denial.

The health and environmental damage show the madness of continuing to burn coal and the need for an immediate transition to renewable energy.

The fire is no anomaly. Australia alone has an average of one underground coal mine fire a year. Brown coal, like that in the Latrobe valley, is particularly prone to ignition, either by bushfires and lightning strikes, or even spontaneously as the coal oxidises.

Coal fires are incredibly difficult to put out—one in the US city of Centralia has been burning since 1962. They release toxic arsenic, mercury and selenium, polluting local water sources and soils and contributing to global warming.

This makes the Morwell mine owners’ failure to take precautions even more outrageous. GDF Suez had not “capped” the disused sections of the mine with clay to cover the coal. They failed to revegetate or install a sprinkler system. The fire was entirely predictable.

The government’s disregard for the health of residents has been spectacular. Experts in air quality and health were urging the evacuation of the whole town. Residents reported burning eyes and throats, coughing up blood, difficulty breathing and headaches.

Postal workers, courts and the public service had already evacuated workers by the time Premier Denis Napthine offered inadequate evacuation grants, three weeks into the fire. Only people over 65, children under school age, pregnant women or those with pre-existing heart or lung conditions were eligible. Even many in these categories were forced to stay, with just $500 provided for relocation costs.

The fire continued to burn, coating the town coated in toxic ash, when residents were told it was safe to return home. Action group Voices from the Valley have held protests at the GDF Suez offices and at Parliament House. Local resident Wendy Farmer said the fire is, “just the latest in a series of preventable disasters occurring in the Valley as a result of corporate and government negligence. This time the community demands that the responsible government departments and GDF Suez are held to account.”

By Lucy Honan

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