Irene Proebsting, Latrobe Valley resident
Living on two acres of beautiful bushland on a ridge at the edge of the Latrobe Valley, Irene Proebsting enjoys visits from wallabies, wombats, goannas, cockatoos and eagles. She also gets a bird’s eye view of the smog from the valley’s coal-fired power stations, Yallourn, Loy Yang A and B, and Hazelwood – until it closed in April this year.
‘The air hangs in the valley and sometimes we’re at eye level with the pollution,’ she says. ‘It’s like a toxic yellow haze that just hangs there.’
The natural beauty of the hills makes it a great place to live, but the air quality presents dilemmas for people with respiratory problems.
‘One of my neighbours has got a really bad lung condition and he said when he goes away to Merimbula he feels a lot better. But he said ‘what do you do?’ He doesn’t want to move away. He lives on a beautiful bush block next to me.’
The pollution varies according to wind direction and cloud cover, but when something goes wrong at the power stations or adjoining coal mines – like when the Hazelwood mine caught fire in February 2014 and burned for 45 days – it’s bad.
‘That was terrible,’ Irene says of that time. ‘My partner was really distressed because he has a chronic health condition. He doesn’t travel well so we couldn’t go anywhere. We even rang people in Boolarra and said ‘what’s the air like over there?’ and they said ‘it’s terrible’. My partner gets very distressed if he can’t open the windows for fresh air.’
Irene says the Hazelwood mine fire sparked anger – and a newfound political engagement for many in the community. The previously safe Nationals seat of Morwell became marginal when independent Tracie Lund gained almost 11% of the vote.
‘People from the valley were really angry and upset. It has caused a change in the politics here.’
Since Hazelwood closed Irene says the air quality seems to have improved.
‘The other day I was going for a walk and the air was clear. And I thought, what a beautiful valley! I thought, gee, it will be great when they all close eventually and the Latrobe Valley has moved on to more environmentally friendly industries.’