Hazelwood (and The Coal Face)

A fire that burned for forty-five days. A town choking on smoke and ash. A community that fought back.

Tom Doig speaking about the Hazelwood mine fire

06 July 2017​

The smoke got thicker and darker and then it seemed to be coming from everywhere, swirling around until it blackened the entire town.

The Coal Face by Tom Doig

In February 2014, the open cut coal mine surrounding Hazelwood Power Station caught fire and burned for forty-five days — that’s over 1000 hours; one-and-a-half months; six weeks. The town of Morwell, home to 14,000 people, is less than half a kilometre from the mine. Over 100,000 people live within 20km of the mine. Carcinogenic brown coal ash fell as far away as Warragul (50km) and Sale (60km). This was a huge industrial; environmental and public health disaster. Melbourne is 152km away, that’s a two-hour drive.

In one sense you have to ask, why was a power station, that burns coal to produce electricity, built in the middle of a coal mine, that’s made up of the highly flammable stuff being burned by the power station to make electricity; but on the other hand it makes sense, right? If the power station’s right in the middle of things, there’s need to transport that shit too far.

Initially, when the mine and station were privatised in the 1990s by the Kennett Government, the company paid a bond of about $12 million. The mine owner, formally GDF Suez, now ENGIE, is one-third owned by the French Government. It was formed on 22 July 2008 by the merger of Gaz de France and Suez, and traces its origins to the Universal Suez Canal Company founded in 1858 to construct the Suez Canal. Since 2008 merger, the French State holds about one third of the company.

Coal is good for humanity.

— Tony Abbott and Malcolm Roberts (neither know what they’re talking about)

Experts estimate the rehabilitation cost at the ‘normal’ end of the mine’s life would be about $250 million, but since the 2014 fire a number of studies have revealed the cost to be more like $750 million — meaning the true cost is over 70 times the original bond. And that’s assuming everything goes off without a hitch. The Centralia Coal Mine (Pennsylvania), has been burning since 1962, and it’s suspected the deliberate burning of trash in a former strip mine ignited a coal seam. Then there’s ENGIE’s plan to dump 740 billion litres of water into the mine to turn it into what is known as a ‘pit lake’. This could see the Morwell River being diverted for at least seven years; could cost as much as $440 million; and would need more water than Sydney Harbour. ENGIE wants to take the water (for free). To date, no one can say if the water will become toxic, and no one knows what impact such toxic water may have on the surrounding land and water table.

Just two to three hours from Brisbane are two contentious mines being pushed onto the people of Acland and Oakey (about 178km from Brisbane — approx. a two-and-a-half hour drive), and onto the people of Kingaroy (about 212km from Brisbane and a three-hour drive). Both places grow food.

The proposed New Acland Mine (New Hope Group) has already consumed the town of Acland. It just doesn’t exist any more; it’s not even a ‘ghost town’. The buildings are gone and the only things left are the roads and the ANZAC memorial, which used to be in the middle of town.

The proposed Kingaroy Mine (Moreton Resources Ltd: MRV), sounds a lot like the Hazelwood mine. MRV wants to build a mine to within 1km of the town. The Kingaroy Concerned Citizens Group is contesting the mine, not least because it will impact negatively on winery tourism, the observatory, the water table and farming land, but because MRV, like Adani and POSCO in the Galilee basin, has form. Previously known as Cougar Energy Limited, MRV has already left Kingaroy residents to deal with the environmental consequences of a failed experimental underground coal gasification plant.

By the time it’s got to the stage where it’s quite dramatic, the company’s gone, the mine’s gone and the groundwater systems are destroyed

— Jim McDonald, catchment expert and farmer (RN Breakfast 13 July, 2017)

In The Coal Face (2015) and Hazelwood (2019) Tom Doig reveals the decades of decisions that lead to the 2014 fire, and gives an intimate account of the blaze during the dark weeks that followed. These two books are urgent and immediate accounts of one of the worst health and environmental disasters in Australia’s history. Let’s hope the QLD Government learns from the mistakes of others the past and works adamantly and tirelessly on behalf of the QLD people and citizens to ensure it doesn’t repeat them.