This Chapter provides a general overview of the emissions produced from a coal fire and their potential adverse health effects. Subsequent chapters examine the effects of smoke and ash from the Hazelwood mine fire on the local community in detail.

Under its Terms of Reference, the Board of Inquiry must report on the measures taken by GDF Suez, emergency services, and other relevant government agencies in respect of the health and wellbeing  of communities affected by the Hazelwood mine fire. In order to examine this, the environmental and health issues caused by the Hazelwood mine fire first need to be identified and explained. A brief overview of the existing health status of the Latrobe Valley also provides valuable context.

When coal is burnt it produces a number of different pollutants. Pollutants produced during the Hazelwood mine fire are similar to, but not the same as, pollutants produced during the normal coal combustion process.

The key pollutants emitted during the Hazelwood mine fire were carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, dioxins and furans, and heavy metals. Each of these pollutants has been linked to potential adverse health effects. Some have immediately noticeable health impacts and others have the potential to produce longer-term adverse health effects.

The State Environment Protection Policy (Ambient Air Quality) provides standards for each of the key pollutants. The standards are used to monitor the ambient air. However they are not designed for use in a pollution emergency. Most of the key pollutants produced during the Hazelwood mine fire are subject to ambient air quality standards.

The Hazelwood mine fire also produced a significant amount of ash. Based on the information provided, the Board considers that the ash produced was not ‘fly ash’, which is a by-product at a coal-fired power station. The ash produced from the mine fire was nonetheless an irritant, and caused significant distress to the community.

The information in this Chapter has been provided in large part by environmental and health experts engaged by the Board of Inquiry, Ms Claire Richardson, Managing Director and Principal Consultant, Air Noise Environment Pty Ltd, and Professor Donald Campbell, Professor of Medicine, Southern Clinical School, Monash University and Program Director, General Medicine Program, Monash Health.