WEEK ONE: 9/10 FEBRUARY 2014 – 16 FEBRUARY 2014

On the evening of 9 February 2014, Morwell was surrounded by a number of fires, including bushfires and the Hazelwood mine fire.

On the evening of 9 February 2014, the Latrobe City Council made a decision to close all preschools and maternal and child health centres in the Council area for the following day due to the fires in the area. The Carinya Early Learning Centre was also closed because it comprises a preschool as well as an early learning centre.1 All services reopened on 11 February 2014, except for the Maryvale Crescent Preschool in Morwell, which remained closed.2 The Maryvale Crescent Preschool was treated differently to other preschools because it was very close to the mine fire. After a period of closure on 24 February 2014, the Maryvale Crescent Preschool was relocated to Moe.3 The centres that were reopened were advised to run indoor programs and monitor the fire-related conditions.4

The fires caused a distressing amount of smoke in the community as illustrated in Figure 4.13. Ms Lisa Wilson, Gippsland Homeless Network Coordinator at Quantum, described being confronted by ‘very smoky and gritty air’ when she returned to Morwell from holidays on 10 February 2014.5

Figure 4.13 Morwell on 9 February 2014

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Image source Newspix/News Ltd

On 11 February 2014, in response to a request from the State Control Centre, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) established an extensive air monitoring program in order to understand the environmental consequences of the Hazelwood mine fire. Data collected through this program was provided to the Department of Health over the course of the event so that the Chief Health Officer could make health assessments and provide advice both to the State Control Centre and to the community.6

On the same day as the EPA was officially engaged as a support agency, Dr Paul Torre was designated as its primary Science Officer. His role was to provide scientific support in response to the mine fire. This function was rotated between other scientists from the EPA.7

Dr Torre and the air monitoring team from the EPA determined that air quality monitoring was required immediately. This assessment was based on a number of factors, including poor air quality already registered due to the fires in Gippsland, and satellite images and reports of the Hazelwood incident. Dr Torre determined that monitoring particulate matter (by capturing PM2.5) was a priority. The EPA did this by recommissioning the air monitoring station in Hourigan Road in the eastern part of Morwell. This monitoring station was originally set up to monitor air quality, and so was the most readily available monitoring station to activate in Morwell.8 The station was up and running and capturing data by the end of Wednesday 12 February 2014.

Also on 11 February 2014, the EPA issued a low level smoke advisory due to smoke in the area from the fires.9 The smoke advisory was generated pursuant to the joint EPA and Department of Health Bushfire Smoke Protocol and did not contain any specific information about adverse health risks from a coal mine fire as opposed to a bushfire.

Late in the evening on 11 February 2014, the Incident Controller suspended firefighting in the mine after a report that several firefighters had presented to hospital.10

During the first week of the mine fire, local community organisations and St Vincent de Paul distributed face masks to some members of the community.11 Ms Tracie Lund, Morwell Neighbourhood House Coordinator, stated to the Board that at this time ‘…there was a lot of smoke in the air, and we were choking in it’.12

On 12 February 2014, Mr Craig Lapsley, Services Commissioner, advised a State Emergency Management Team meeting that the Hazelwood mine fire could burn for at least a month.13 At this meeting, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) raised the issue of air quality and the potential impact on schools and children’s services close to the mine.14 Mr Nicholas Pole, Deputy Secretary, Regional Services Group, from DEECD stated to the Board that DEECD was concerned that smoke from the fire was impacting on the quality of the air in schools and childcare facilities.15

Also on 12 February 2014, Dr Torre travelled to the mine site in order to conduct a full assessment of what was required in terms of air quality monitoring. While near the mine site, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) advised Dr Torre of carbon monoxide readings coming from the mine. Dr Torre instructed EPA staff to hire hand-held carbon monoxide monitors and to identify portable carbon monoxide monitoring equipment. Both the CFA and EPA conducted initial monitoring of carbon monoxide, with low cost monitoring devices from 12 February 2014.16

The EPA also determined that additional air quality monitoring was required in the community. In the absence of a permanent monitoring station near the mine (such as those in Traralgon and Hourigan Road in Morwell, which take weeks to build), the EPA set about identifying air monitoring equipment that would capture particulate matter near the residential area closest to the mine. The EPA hired portable particulate matter monitors also known as DustTrak monitors that give indicative readings of PM2.5.17

During the first week of the mine fire, the EPA was unable to provide the Department of Health with validated rolling averages for carbon monoxide and PM2.5 levels. However, the Department of Health did have access to indicative data from the EPA together with the Department of Health’s own general observations about visibility in the area.18

On 13 February 2014, Dr Torre determined that the Morwell Bowling Club at 52 Hazelwood Road would be a suitable location for an additional fixed monitoring site as it was both within the township and as close to the mine site as possible. This decision was taken in consultation with the EPA Incident Commander. On the same day, a portable DustTrak monitor was installed at the Morwell Bowling Club and monitoring of PM2.5 commenced at this site.19

Dr Rosemary Lester, Chief Health Officer, told the Board that the initial health response to the Hazelwood mine fire was focused on the smoke emitted from the surrounding bushfires, not the fire in the coal mine.20 Dr Lester stated that ‘[g]iven that we know that bushfire smoke can have acute health effects on health… then we need to get the message out from the start as to what people need to do to protect their health.’21

On 13 February 2014, four days after the mine fire commenced, Dr Lester issued the first health alert.22 In this alert, Dr Lester advised that high levels of smoke can aggravate existing heart or lung conditions and cause irritated eyes, coughing or wheezing. She also advised that children, the elderly, smokers and people with pre-existing illnesses (such as heart and lung conditions) are more sensitive to the effects of breathing fine particles (PM2.5). Her advice was to avoid prolonged or heavy physical activity outdoors.23 The same day, Mr Lapsley determined that the mine fire should have a HazMat (hazardous materials and items) overlay applied.24

On 13 and 14 February 2014, the EPA commenced monitoring carbon monoxide in the community using hand-held monitors at schools, aged care facilities and childcare centres. No significantly elevated readings were obtained.25

On 14 February 2014, the Incident Controller released the Health Management and Decontamination Plan to provide protection to firefighters against exposure to carbon monoxide.26

The Incident Controller arranged a community meeting on 14 February 2014. At this meeting the Department of Health distributed a fact sheet on the health effects of the Hazelwood mine fire, which included information about the smoke that was being produced, the production of carbon monoxide, potential short-term and long-term health effects, and general advice to the community. The information sheet also stated that ‘[d]uring extended, very smoky conditions, sensitive individuals should consider temporarily staying with a friend or relative living outside the smoke-affected area.’27

At approximately midday on 15 February 2014, CFA HazMat technicians recorded elevated readings of carbon monoxide in the Morwell community.28 The carbon monoxide spot readings were elevated in and around Morwell, south of Commercial Road, in particular at the Morwell Police Station where levels reached 20 ppm.29 A meeting was promptly held between the Incident Controller, Scientific Advisor and the Public Information Officer, who agreed that a ‘shelter in place’ warning should be issued to local residents in the affected area.30 Dr Lester was advised of the intended notification and said that the Department of Health would provide a risk assessment to the Incident Controller.31 However, unfortunately this was not provided until after the alert was issued.

At approximately 1 pm, the CFA sent the following message to a number of Morwell residents (based on their proximity to the mine fire): ‘Watch and Act – Morwell residents indoors immediately, close windows/doors/vents. Seek further info via radio.’32

The Department of Health was not involved in the final decision to issue the ‘Watch and Act’ alert.33 Dr Lester advised the Board that she did not agree with the ‘Watch and Act’ alert and considered that it was unhelpful as it sent a very concerning message to the community that was not necessary.34

Later that afternoon there was an easterly wind change, which dispersed the carbon monoxide.35 The ‘Watch and Act’ alert was downgraded at around 6.45 pm and residents were sent a further text message, which stated: ‘Watch and Act – can go outside and open doors and windows.’36

After the first week of the fire, the Department of Health recognised that new decision-making tools beyond the Bushfire Smoke Protocol were required to inform public health advice.37 On 15 February 2014 the EPA and Department of Health commenced work on a carbon monoxide protocol to provide guidance to officials and the community about elevated levels of carbon monoxide.38

At around this time the Department of Health began issuing additional alerts and community information sheets with information about the potential adverse health effects of the fires. Low and high level advisories pursuant to the Bushfire Smoke Protocol continued to be issued by the EPA for the duration of the Hazelwood mine fire.39

The EPA provided summaries of indicative data of PM2.5 to the Department of Health and the Regional Control Centre from 16 February 2014.40

On the weekend of 15 and 16 February 2014, high indicative carbon monoxide readings were observed.41

Dr Torre told the Board that on 16 February 2014, the visibility in Morwell was less than one kilometre and that the level of smoke was unprecedented and unexpected.42 In his statement to the Board he stated that there was a noticeable decline in air quality with visibility down to between 300 and 500 metres.43 When asked by the Board what he would estimate the levels of PM2.5 to have been at that time against the air quality standard of 25 µg/m3, Dr Torre stated that ‘I think we’re estimating could be 500, 700, it’s very high.’44

On 16 February 2014, the CFA recorded elevated spot readings of carbon monoxide in the community–around 20–30 ppm with a peak of 60 ppm.45 Later that evening, Dr Torre advised the Department of Health that the EPA had also recorded elevated carbon monoxide and PM2.5 readings.46 The Department of Health determined that no action was required that night.47