This Chapter examines the role of the Environment Protection Authority in its capacity as a support agency during the Hazelwood mine fire.
Under its Terms of Reference, the Board of Inquiry is required to investigate and report on the adequacy and effectiveness of the response to the mine fire by environmental agencies, in particular in respect to the health and wellbeing of the affected communities.
The Environment Protection Authority is Victoria’s environmental regulator. For the last three decades the Environment Protection Authority has monitored air quality in the Latrobe Valley via a permanent air monitoring station in Traralgon.
During the Hazelwood mine fire, the Environment Protection Authority conducted air quality monitoring in Morwell and the surrounding areas on a significant scale. On 11 February 2014, the State Control Centre made a request to the Environment Protection Authority, that they provide support and advice in responding to the Hazelwood mine fire. A variety of equipment was used at different locations to obtain relevant data. Data on air quality was then provided to the Department of Health to help inform its advice to the community. The Environment Protection Authority also tested soil, ash and water during the mine fire.
Environmental testing demonstrated that there were three key time periods of significantly elevated levels of pollution (primarily PM2.5 and carbon monoxide). These time periods were 15–18 February 2014, 21–25 February 2014, and 26–28 February 2014. During these periods PM2.5 levels were well above the advisory standard. A peak reading of PM2.5 was estimated for 16 February 2014 when the daily average was approximately 700 ppm–approximately 28 times the advisory standard of 25 ppm. Carbon monoxide levels were also significantly elevated during the three peak periods. The maximum daily eight hour average of carbon monoxide was recorded on 16 February 2014 at 33 ppm–almost four times the compliance standard of 9 ppm.
Other pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, were recorded during the mine fire; but they did not exceed compliance standards. The Environment Protection Authority also monitored volatile organic compounds. It found that benzene exceeded the assessment criteria of 9 ppb at the Morwell Bowling Club (South) on two occasions (when it was recorded at 14 ppb and 9.7 ppb), and on one occasion at the Maryvale Crescent Preschool (when it was recorded at 9.2 ppb). Children were not at the facility at this time.
The Board of Inquiry heard from Dr Paul Torre, Science Officer at the Environment Protection Authority, and expert witness Ms Claire Richardson, Managing Director and Principal Consultant, Air Noise Environment Pty Ltd, about the air, water and soil quality monitoring conducted during the Hazelwood mine fire.
The Board commends the Environment Protection Authority for:
- its commitment to scientific rigour and scientific competence in analysing a large amount of complex air quality data sets in a short period of time
- working assiduously to overcome equipment deficiencies, and moving as swiftly as it could to obtain equipment from wherever it could
- the monitoring conducted from 20 February 2014 onwards at the Morwell Bowling Club (South)
- seeking independent peer reviews about its response to the Hazelwood mine fire.
Based on the evidence available, the Board finds that limited equipment and resources delayed the ability of the Environment Protection Authority to provide indicative and validated data to the Department of Health and the community in a timely way. Further, the Environment Protection Authority was overly focused on validated data, when indicative data would have sufficed for decision-makers during the emergency.