Early in the afternoon of 9 February 2014, during the worst drought and heatwave south-eastern Australia had experienced in over a century, two separate bushfires raged towards the massive Hazelwood open-pit brown-coal mine, near Morwell in the Latrobe Valley. The fires overwhelmed local fire-fighting efforts and sent a skyful of embers sailing onto millions of square metres of exposed, highly flammable brown coal. Twelve hours later, the mine was burning.
The Hazelwood mine fire burned out of control for 45 days. As the air filled with toxic smoke and ash, residents of the Latrobe Valley became ill, afraid – and angry. Up against an unresponsive corporation and an indifferent government, the community banded together, turning tragedy into a political fight.
In Hazelwood, Tom Doig reveals the decades of decisions that led to the fire, and gives an intimate account of the first moments of the blaze and the dark months that followed. This is a gripping and immediate report of one of the worst environmental and public health disasters in Australian history.
In February 2014, the Hazelwood open-pit brown-coal mine caught fire and burned out of control for forty-five days. Residents of the impoverished Latrobe Valley endured months of toxic air pollution. Many became sick and several workers in the mine, who had spent weeks fighting the fires, are now chronically ill.
The area is underprivileged in part due to the privatisation of the mine, which saw jobs disappear from the region. Once a state-owned asset, Hazelwood at the time of the fires was run by a multinational corporation. A changing energy market and uncertainty due to climate change led to gross neglect of the power station. The fire should have been treated as a public health disaster immediately, however, as Tom Doig uncovers, if it weren’t for the dogged persistence of community groups, the state government and the corporation responsible for the mine would largely have ignored the problem.
The Black Saturday bushfires had hit the region five years earlier so authorities and the mine owners should have been aware that potential for disaster was high, but the aging mine had been allowed to fall in to disrepair and safety precautions were reduced year after year. Doig set out to reveal the human cost of the emergency and he spent a total of seventy-two days in the Latrobe Valley conducting in-depth interviews with residents and workers. The result is a thoughtful and gripping account of the experiences of locals who already endure the hardship of living in an area of Victoria with high unemployment and lower-than-average life expectancy.
This book provides a crucial analysis of the complex relationship between political and socio-economic factors in the fallout from one of Victoria’s worst environmental disasters and provides a voice to those who were most affected.
Kara Nicholson is part of the online Readings team.
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