The Coal Face (2015)
(Excerpts from The Coal Face, published by Penguin Books Australia on 25 March, 2015)
In February of 2014, the open-cut coalmine next to Hazelwood Power Station caught fire. it burned out of control for forty-five days – over one thousand hours. The town of Morwell, home to 14 000 people, is less than half a kilometre from Hazelwood mine. in the Latrobe Valley, over 70 000 people live within 20 kilometres of the mine. Choking smoke and toxic gases filled the Valley. Carcinogenic brown coal ash fell as far away as Warragul, 50 kilometres to the west, and Sale, 60 kilometres to the east.
The short-term health effects included stinging eyes, sore throats, headaches, difficulty breathing, chest pains, rashes, nausea, ‘metallic taste in mouth’, bleeding gums, bleeding noses, diarrhoea, vomiting, and eleven probable deaths. The medium- and long- term health effects remain to be seen. The mine fire was ‘a world’s first in terms of prolonged adverse air quality’, according to the Environment Protection Authority Victoria. Environment Victoria described the smoke as ‘possibly the worst incident of environmental pollution in our state’s history’. The mine fire was one of the worst industrial disasters Victoria has ever seen. it may also prove to be one of the worst public health disasters the state has ever seen.
The fire was foreseeable.
The disaster was preventable.
PART ONE: THE FIRE
A Massive Cloud of Smoke ...
On the morning of sunday 9 February 2014, Simon Ellis sat out on the front verandah of his Morwell house with his younger brother Robert and his seven-year-old daughter Charity. The Ellises drank glass after glass of Coca-Cola and weathered the 40-degree heat and 50-kilometres-an-hour north- westerlies as best they could. Simon’s house was near the top of Buckley’s Hill and faced south, with views over the pink and green rooftops of Morwell. on the left, a pair of short, bushy trees on Comans Street framed the Hazelwood Power Station.
It was a brutally hot day and the sky was a vivid, cloudless blue. The days before, on Friday and saturday, Simon had been working as a chef an hour away in Clayton. His brother called on Saturday morning and told him to get home: there was a fire in nearby Hernes Oak, and people in Morwell were ‘just up and leaving’. But by the time Simon made it back that afternoon, there was no smoke to be seen. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) had the Hernes Oak fire under control, and the danger seemed to have passed. While Simon and Robert sipped their drinks and tried to chill out, Charity went and played on the lawn with the kids next door. Suddenly simon saw a puff of smoke on the horizon, a massive cloud coming out of the trees to the left of Hernes Oak near Driffield: ‘it was as if someone had lit up a giant cigarette.’ Since it was a total fire ban day, he called 000 straightaway. It was 1.03 p.m.
‘There’s a fire just started,’ Simon told the operator in his Birmingham accent. ‘I’ve seen it happen just now in the hills on the other side of the Strzelecki Highway.’
He was transferred to the CFA. When the CFA lady told him they already knew about the Hernes Oak fire, Simon replied, ‘This is not the same fire – this is a fire that’s just started, and I’m watching it right now.’
In the space of that short phone call, the column of whitish smoke had become a thick grey plume and was towering into the sky. To Simon, it looked like the beginnings of a mushroom cloud. The wind had changed to a ripping south-westerly, and Simon and his brother watched as the smoke moved steadily left, towards Hazelwood Power Station. After a few minutes the smoke got thicker and darker, and then it seemed to be coming from everywhere, swirling around until it blanketed the entire town. That’s when they knew the fire had got into the mine.
As the afternoon wore on, Simon’s neighbours crowded onto his little verandah. They listened to the radio and watched the TV news, trying to work out what was going on. The ABC reported that the Hernes Oak fire, which the CFA thought was contained, had flared up and spread along the Princes Freeway towards the mine from the west, before the wind change pushed the flames just past the north-west edge of Morwell and into the timber plantations to the north of town. But Simon and his neighbours couldn’t see any of that – the smoke was too thick. As they sat there with their drinks, the mood was strangely festive; they were scared, but also excited. Simon took photograph after photograph as smoke billowed from one of Australia’s most profitable holes in the ground into the ash-grey sky. The sun looked like an orange moon. The smoke had a weird smell and taste to it.
At 8.16 p.m. that evening, Trevor Rowe, spokesperson for GDF suez, was interviewed by Scott Bevan on ABC news 24. GDF suez is the owner of Hazelwood mine and one of the largest energy companies in the world. They refused to be interviewed for this book.
‘Earlier this afternoon the fires did spread into [the] northern batters of the Hazelwood mine,’ Rowe confirmed. ‘Fortunately, it’s an old worked-out area of the mine and it’s some distance from our normal coal-mining operation[s] so they haven’t been affected.’
Bevan asked Rowe: ‘If a fire were to get into a mine, into coal seams, I guess, for a layman like me, what’s the threat? What’s the long-term, or, indeed, the medium-term issue with that?’
‘Look, our experience in years gone by, Scott, is that they are very difficult fires to manage,’ Rowe replied. ‘But, as I said, this area is well away from our operating area so we don’t have that concern.’
The ‘northern batters’ is mining slang for the coalface on the northern edge of the Hazelwood mine. This steep, terraced bank is 3 kilometres long and 130 metres high: as tall as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and over three times as wide.
Simon thought that Trevor Rowe was trying to give listeners the impression that because Hazelwood was still supplying electricity to the grid, there was nothing to worry about. Once the interview had finished, he called the ABC.
‘You’ve just finished speaking to some guy from the mine?’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, but he’s talking a load of shit.’ The ABC asked simon if they could put him on air. ‘go for your life!’ he said. And then, when he was on: ‘Some guy called Trevor Rowe has just come on the radio and said there’s no problem – but I can tell you that I’m looking at the mine now, and the mine is burning.’
Bevan asked him if he was sure.
‘As sure as I’m standing here. I can see both edges of the mine, and I can clearly see fire coming from the middle of it.’
An hour later, the explosions started. At first everyone thought it was the briquette factory next to Hazelwood Power Station, but thanks to the infra-red setting on Simon’s video camera, he worked out it happened directly in front of the power plant – inside the mine. He managed to film the second and third blasts. He called the ABC again, and they put him straight to air.
‘My name is Simon Ellis, I’m from Morwell in the Latrobe Valley, Gippsland. We’ve just witnessed three enormous explosions, over by Hazelwood Power Station . . . And now we’re seeing what are probably 50-foot high flames, right now. All we can see is fire – I mean, it’s going so fast, it’s probably moved now, easy a couple hundred metres since I’ve been speaking to you . . .’
When asked about the explosions, he said, ‘One minute you could see the haze of the orange of the low-lying fire – and then the entire sky just lit up.’
From Simon’s verandah, everyone peered between the two trees on Comans Street to Hazelwood Power Station, which was illuminated by the flames. Another explosion. In the blinding flash, all Simon could see was the silhouette of two little trees.