Bronya Lipski, Lawyer, EJA 

I will never forget when my dad called to tell me the Hazelwood mine was on fire.

I knew there was a bushfire in the area, which for a very fire-prone area of Victoria is a devastatingly regular occurrence.

It also isn’t particularly unusual for mine fires to break out in Latrobe Valley – lignite (brown coal) is a highly volatile substance. These fires are usually put out very quickly. People who have grown up in Latrobe valley, like me and my dad, know this.

But there was something in dad’s voice that day that made it feel like the world had stopped.

“It’s raging out of control,” he said.

“But that doesn’t make sense,” I said.

“It’s spreading into the coal seam.”

I went cold when dad said that. As we talked, I was frantically looking for information online but no one was really reporting on it.

And, for the next 45 days, this catastrophe wasn’t given the attention it deserved.

The mine fire was not treated as an emergency by the Victorian government at the time. The Health Minister and the Chief Health Officer told people that everything was fine and that they should just stay inside and avoid exercise, while they suffered headaches, nausea and coughing fits, their homes filled with ash, and their pets showed symptoms of chemical burns.

A shocked community

The Latrobe Valley community was in shock and was stumped at how this catastrophe could even happen. A huge section of the mine was on fire with no end in sight. Residents were cloaked in toxic, acrid smoke for a month and a half – it was apocalyptic.

“I grew up in the Latrobe Valley and my dad worked at the power stations so I knew the operators of the mine could have put measures in place to protect the community from a disaster like this.”

The section of the mine that was on fire was not in use and should have been rehabilitated long before the fire and the fire-fighting equipment inside the mine should have been maintained. I felt angry thinking this might have been prevented if the operators of the mine had done their job properly and if our regulators were watching them more closely. Once the fire was finally controlled, members of the community wanted answers and they wanted those responsible for the mine fire to be held accountable.

Supporting our community

Our team of lawyers here at EJA supported the Latrobe Valley community through their journey to the jury verdict delivered on Wednesday. We worked with the community to ensure the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry was established and the recommendations implemented.

We acted on behalf of community group, Voices of the Valley, led by local resident Wendy Farmer, to write to Worksafe Victoria, making the case for Worksafe intervention and requesting they prosecute the mine owners for breaches of the OH&S Act in 2015. I was an intern at EJA at the time and worked on the matter with our Principal Lawyer.

David vs Goliath

And we continue to work with the community to secure strong laws and regulations that prevent the community’s exposure to toxic air pollution from the coal mines and coal-fired power stations in the area.

It was a huge moment in court this month when the jury found Hazelwood Power Partners Pty Ltd guilty of 10 of the 12 charges brought by Worksafe Victoria for breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.

I felt humbled to have been part of making this happen and astounded by the resilience of the community in this five year David and Goliath battle that has seen a coal company lose its social licence and an empowered community stand up for their rights.

Earlier this year Hazelwood Power Partners Pty Ltd was found guilty by a jury of all the charges laid against it for breaches of the Environment Protection Act 1970 for causing air pollution. This too is an important prosecution because thousands of people were exposed to toxic mine smoke, including carbon monoxide and fine particle pollution, for nearly 2 months.

“Both jury verdicts are important wins for the Latrobe Valley community who will hopefully start to feel a sense of closure.”

We won’t know the extent of the penalties that the mine operators will receive until sentencing judgement is handed down, most likely next year.

Until then, hopefully the Latrobe Valley feels some comfort that justice has been delivered. We congratulate the Office of Public Prosecutions and the team under Sally Flynn QC for their excellent work and the community for the unwavering resilience.