Comment: Wake up and smell the coal smoke

In the La Trobe Valley, a fire in an open-cut coal mine continues to burn, blanketing neighbouring communities in smoke haze and fly ash.

For two and half weeks now a huge fire has been burning at the Hazelwood coal mine near the town of Morwell in South-East Victoria. It’s ironic if you think about it. With global warming increasing the risk of severe fires in Australia, the fires have now taken on the very cause of the problem itself.

Behind the irony though lies and ongoing tragedy, and one that is largely being ignored. As the fire has burnt it has spewed toxic gasses into the region, and with awful consequences. To give you a sense of the impact, on Monday morning air quality ratings in the township of Morwell hit a peak of 872. 150 is considered to be “very poor” air quality. The pollution has caused a range of health problems, in particular hitting young children with asthma.

The pollution has hit those fighting the fire as well. By last week nineteen firefighters had to be admitted to hospital after falling ill from fighting the blaze. The burning coal releases high levels of the poisonous carbon monoxide, making fighting the blaze extremely difficult.

It is no wonder therefore that Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Rosemary Lester, has recommended that people living with small children leave Morwell if they can, something that is obviously very difficult for most people.

It’s amazing how little attention this has gotten. For over two weeks now poisonous gas has been spewing into the air in Victoria and yet we’ve heard very little about it. Fires tend to make national headlines, are cause for high-profile Prime Ministerial visits, and for the pouring in of support for those who have been affected. Yet this fire, one that has been burning for over two and a half weeks, seems to have been met with a national ‘meh’.

It’s an amazing response, yet not really surprising. In fact it is one that simply highlights an ongoing and willful political ignorance of the health impacts of coal.

The mining and burning of coal has long been known to hurt our health. Particles release from coal mining for example have been blamed for a number of diseases, including asthma, emphysema, heart disease and stroke. Responding to this a bipartisan Senate Committee last year recommended a range of new policy measures, including introducing buffer zones between mines and residential areas and the covering of train wagons carrying the product. The result of this inquiry however, have been basically nothing. Our politicians have ignored the evidence, allowing coal production to hurt communities across the country.

This is in sharp contrast to how we treat other forms of energy. At the start of this year for example, Tony Abbott called for a new independent enquiry into the health impacts of wind farms. This was despite there being a review already being conducted by the National Health and Medical Research Council; a review which again blew away claims of negative health impacts of wind turbines.

When it comes to an unproven theory about wind energy, the Government is all on board with as much research as they can find. For proven health effects of coal though, their response is nothing. With the fossil fuel industry deeply in the pockets of both our parties, the impacts of coal are largely being ignored, and with terrible consequences.

The Hazelwood fire should be a wakeup call. It should be the time we realise the health effects of coal mining are simply far too much to bear. But as entire towns suffer under the smog of the fire, our Governments continue to ignore the reality. Hazelwood is burning and we’re sleeping through the fire.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.