On 11 February 2014, the State Control Centre made a request to the EPA that it provide support and advice in responding to the Hazelwood mine fire. In the Board’s view, the request came too late. Carbon monoxide and smoke were emitted from the fire from 9 February 2014.

The monitoring conducted by the EPA from 13 February 2014 onwards at Hourigan Road, Morwell (East) provided valuable data. However, the Board accepts the opinion of independent air pollution expert Ms Richardson that the location of this monitoring station was not representative of the acute impacts likely to have affected the community located closer to the mine site from 9 February to 20 February 2014.116

The Board commends the monitoring conducted by the EPA from 20 February 2014 onwards at the Morwell Bowling Club (South), and accepts the opinion of air pollution expert Ms Richardson, that it was both extensive and of high quality. This enabled the EPA to provide detailed data to the Department of Health to assist in its decision-making.117 The Board notes that this monitoring will also help to inform future studies on air quality impacts from the Hazelwood mine fire.

There were some delays in establishing and maintaining monitoring at various locations in Morwell and the surrounding areas due to the availability and serviceability of monitoring equipment. The EPA also experienced technical difficulties in testing soil, ash and water.

The Board commends the EPA for working assiduously to overcome equipment deficiencies, and moving as swiftly as it could to obtain equipment from wherever it could. The Board notes that the majority of the air quality monitors used by the EPA in response to the Hazelwood mine fire are sensitive, high quality pieces of equipment, and commissioning such monitors would usually take days if not a week or more to set up properly in order to log air quality data accurately.

The Board considers that monitoring during the initial period of the incident could have been improved by the use of portable instruments. Rapidly deploying low cost, highly mobile monitoring equipment that is calibrated and ready for deployment would have alleviated the pressure the EPA experienced. Having such equipment on hand would have allowed monitoring to have commenced earlier on in the critical period of the first week when the highest air pollution concentrations were likely to have affected the community. Based on the evidence provided, the Board considers that the EPA should have been in a position to respond to this event within 24 hours of the request.

Further, portable monitoring that has the capacity for remote downloading via a modem to allow for rapid access to data was needed. Having this in place would have provided data in the required format earlier on.

The EPA did not have the right equipment to rapidly establish data gathering and analysis for air quality monitoring and testing.118 Based on the information available the Board is concerned that the EPA was ill-equipped to respond. The Board affirms the Victorian Government’s intention to clarify future expectations of incident air monitoring and scenarios, and determine the appropriate inventory of equipment, and to review EPA emergency protocols, incorporating lessons from the Hazelwood mine fire.119

The EPA holds itself to the highest levels of scientific rigour and quality assurance. It does this by ensuring accuracy of data readings through testing and calibrating its equipment, having data results checked internally, and by conducting external peer reviews of its monitoring and testing regime.

The approach taken by the EPA in relation to requesting interim results was sensible and is to be expected in a scenario such as this one. The approach taken by the EPA in relation to indicative data, on the other hand, could have been improved.

There is merit in using indicative data in emergency response situations, rather than waiting many days for data logged through a permanent monitoring station. The Board considers that the need for timely data overrides the necessity for provision of data that is fully compliant with the National Ambient Air Quality standard. This means that less accurate data obtained sooner would have been more valuable than data that was quality assured but took longer to produce. The Board accepts the opinion of the independent expert on this point.

The Board considers that agencies should have acted on data available in the first week that showed significant, potentially dangerous emissions from the mine likely to affect the people of Morwell. In its response to the Hazelwood mine fire, the EPA put scientific rigour over and above the flexibility it needed to respond with less precise mobile equipment.120

The Board supports the EPA’s continued air monitoring in the Latrobe Valley and in particular Morwell.

Exposure to air pollutants is largely beyond the control of individuals and requires action by public authorities.

The Board considers that it is essential that the PM2.5 advisory standard be converted into a compliance standard and recommends that the State take the lead in advocating for this standard. The Board supports the development of the compliance standard through an amendment to the National Ambient Air Quality standard as proposed by the EPA. It considers that the proposed amendment will assist in providing a level of health protection against the impacts of particle air pollution for the Australian community and encourages the amendment to be made promptly. This is in line with the EPA’s intention to monitor PM2.5 at all of its fixed automatic air quality monitoring locations by the end of July 2014.121

The Board affirms the Victorian Government’s intention to review the State Ambient Air Quality standard.122

Recommendation 5

The State equip itself to undertake rapid air quality monitoring in any location in Victoria to:

  • collect all relevant data, including data on PM2.5, carbon monoxide and ozone; and
  • ensure this data is used to inform decision-making within 24 hours of the incident occurring.

Recommendation 6

The State take the lead in advocating for a national compliance standard for PM2.5.