Overview

This Chapter considers the measures taken by various government departments and agencies to respond to the health emergency caused by the Hazelwood mine fire.

Under its Terms of Reference, the Board of Inquiry must examine and report on the adequacy and effectiveness of the response to the mine fire by government agencies, in particular measures taken in relation to the health and wellbeing of the affected community.

The health response to the Hazelwood mine fire was led by the Department of Health with the assistance of the Environment Protection Authority. The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Latrobe City Council managed the health response for schools and children’s services.

The Department of Health provided advice to the Incident Controller in relation to the public health consequences of the Hazelwood mine fire, monitored demand for health services, ensured coordination of health resources, and was responsible for the strategic oversight of the health response. The Chief Health Officer, Dr Rosemary Lester, was the Government’s spokesperson about health issues during the mine fire. The Department of Health also engaged with local general practitioners and health services.

This Chapter includes an overview of the regulatory framework relevant to air quality, and reviews the response to elevated levels of carbon monoxide and PM2.5 in the Latrobe Valley during the mine fire.

Prior to the Hazelwood mine fire, the Environment Protection Authority and the Department of Health developed a Bushfire Smoke Protocol to assist with decision-making in the event of high levels of smoke from a bushfire. During the mine fire, further joint protocols were developed to help inform decision-making and advice to the community about increased levels of carbon monoxide and PM2.5 in the air.

In this Chapter, the Board considers the decision to issue a ‘Watch and Act’ alert on 15 February 2014 in response to elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the air. The Board also reviewed the Chief Health Officer’s advice on 28 February 2014 that ‘at risk’ groups south of Commercial Road temporarily relocate from Morwell due to high levels of PM2.5 in the air.

A number of additional measures were put in place to provide health information and support to the community during the Hazelwood mine fire. These include the establishment of a community respite centre and a health assessment centre.

The Department of Health has committed to undertake a 10 year health study into the potential long-term adverse health effects to the community as a result of exposure to smoke and ash from the Hazelwood mine fire.

The local community provided the Board of Inquiry with extensive feedback about the Government’s health response. The Board heard from individuals from the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services, the Environment Protection Authority, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Latrobe City Council. These agencies described measures undertaken in response to the health emergency and why certain measures were adopted. To assist the Inquiry, the Board engaged an independent expert Professor Donald Campbell, Professor of Medicine, Southern Clinical School, Monash University and Program Director, General Medicine Program, Monash Health.

The Board commends the Department of Health for the development of a health assessment centre and the community respite centre. The Board commends the Latrobe City Council for independently taking action to minimise the impact of the mine fire on children and school staff. The Board also commends the Environment Protection Authority and the Department of Health for their commitment to developing the carbon monoxide and PM2.5 protocols, and for obtaining peer reviews of the protocols.

The Board is concerned with several aspects of the protocols. The Bushfire Smoke Protocol generated a number of repetitive smoke advisories, but it did not provide actionable advice for the community to respond to varying levels of smoke. The community Carbon Monoxide Response Protocol and the PM2.5 Health Protection Protocol were developed during the mine fire and because of this could not be used to protect the community in the early stages of the fire. The advice of international experts is that the acute exposure standards, used as a basis for the community carbon monoxide protocol, are too high and should be reviewed. The Board is concerned about the inconsistency between the community carbon monoxide protocol and the firefighter carbon monoxide protocol.

The Board concludes that the response to poor air quality in the Latrobe Valley as a result of the Hazelwood mine fire was delayed and overly reliant on validated air quality data when indicative air quality data was sufficient to inform health advice. The Board considers that the temporary relocation advice to vulnerable groups should have been provided earlier.