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Latrobe Valley community group Voices of the Valley and their lawyers, Environmental Justice Australia, welcome the Victorian Labor party’s commitment to re-open the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry.

Latrobe Valley community group Voices of the Valley and their lawyers, Environmental Justice Australia, welcome the Victorian Labor party’s commitment to re-open the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry to investigate whether the pollution from the fire has cause a spike in deaths in the Latrobe Valley.

The commitment to reopen the inquiry is both a recognition that there are serious unresolved issues relating to the impact of the fire and that an independent inquiry into these issues is appropriate and necessary.

There is compelling evidence that pollution from the mine fire caused an increase in deaths in the Latrobe Valley during and after the fire, and that deaths are continuing to occur now as a result of the pollution.  Studies show that short term exposure to pollution such as that released in the mine fire can result in deaths at the time of the pollution event and in the weeks and months following.

While the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry considered health impacts in detail, the deadline for the Inquiry’s report meant that important information in relation to deaths was not considered. The minimal response to the issue by the Napthine Government and Department of Health is not commensurate with the seriousness of the issue, the level of ongoing distress it is causing the Latrobe Valley community, and the ongoing threat to public health that exists while the issue remains unresolved.

The inconsistency in analysis of whether the mine fire caused an increase in deaths has resulted in confusion and additional distress for the local community.  A thorough and independent investigation into the possible spike in deaths is needed so that all the evidence and all community concerns can be properly considered.

The inquiry should be constituted as a Board of Inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2014.  The Board should include appropriate expertise in public health.

The Inquiry should be given specific terms of reference that require it to investigate the following:

  • whether the pollution from the mine fire caused or contributed to the deaths of some residents in the Latrobe Valley;
  • whether pollution from the mine fire poses the risk of causing or contributing to further deaths in the short to medium term in the Latrobe Valley;
  • whether any measures might be taken to prevent any such deaths in people who are at risk;
  • whether any deaths could be prevented if similar circumstances occurred in the future in the Latrobe Valley or elsewhere in Victoria; and
  • acknowledging the lowered health status of people in the Latrobe Valley due in part to long term and ongoing exposure to pollutants from industry[1] – measures that should be taken to reduce the exposure of residents and workers to harmful pollutants in order to improve their health.

Due to the Napthine Government’s refusal to agree to an independent inquiry, Environmental Justice Australia on behalf of Voices of the Valley requested the Coroner investigate whether the fire caused a spike in deaths (submission to Coroner available here PDF 125KB). The Coroner has determined that the Coroner’s Act does not allow her to investigate.  Voices of the Valley are considering an appeal of this decision, however a Board of Inquiry would an appropriate avenue to investigate the issue.

Environmental Justice Australia and Voices of the Valley call on the Coalition Government to also commit to re-opening the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry to investigate the above matters.   While the government’s 20 year health study is welcomed to consider illnesses and impacts that develop over the longer term, it is not an appropriate and effective vehicle to consider and act on the issue of deaths that may be occurring now.

Until an independent investigation is conducted into the spike in deaths the people of the Latrobe Valley continue to suffer a significant injustice. The inquiry should be re-opened as a priority so that the people of the Latrobe Valley get the answers and the justice they deserve.

[1] As identified in the Hazelwood Mine Fire Report Part 4.1