As I type, 94% of generation in Victoria is being sourced from brown coal. Hazelwood power station is pumping out 1,221 megawatts, about 20% of total Victorian power. At the same time, the open cut coal mine that provides fuel to the power station is burning; a slow, intense fire that sits at the coal seam face. The fires, suspected to have been deliberately lit, eject plumes of smoke into Morwell, a town of 14,005 residents, a stone’s throw away from the smouldering seam. Click here for more on Google Earth image.
On the 9th of February, reports emerged that a bushfire was threatening the output of one of Victoria’s largest coal generators. At one point, Hazelwood’s output was reduced to three quarters of total capacity. Since the bushfire, the power station has ramped back up to full power:
The fire has been burning for several weeks now, and authorities are concerned it might linger for months. CFA photographer Keith Pakenham has published a set of haunting photos of the fire – an unnerving capture of the alien landscape faced by the Country Fire Authority, every night, as they fight the blaze.
Air quality has dropped significantly since the fire began. The Victorian Environmental Protection Authority publishes air quality data on their website, and it’s clear that the residents of Morwell are experiencing serious impacts. See more here.
The consequences are wide-ranging. 20 firefighters were sent to hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning in the first week of the incident. Residents have attended health assessment centres established in the town after experiencing nose bleeds, chest pains and respiratory problems.
25,000 face masks have been distributed around the local area by the Latrobe City Council, and EPA Victoria have released a steady stream of high level alerts warning of immediate impacts from smoke inhalation and poor air quality.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Rosemary Lester, issued an advisory, stating that “children, the elderly, smokers and people with preexisting illnesses such as heart or lung conditions (including asthma) are more sensitive to the effects of breathing in fine particles. Symptoms may worsen and include wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing”.
Microscopic particles known as PM2.5 have been recorded at dangerous levels in the township by visiting EPA officers from Tasmania, at some points exceeding levels recorded in the heavily-polluted city of Beijing. A six year old boy has developed a cough that is so severe, he’s having trouble eating. One writer visited the town, and came back coughing up blood.
Last Friday, health authorities recommended children and the elderly leave town. In Morwell, there are 2,586 people aged under 14, and 2,690 people aged over 65. That’s 5,276 Morwell residents who might be forced out of their home town – about one third of the town’s population.
Also last Friday, Australia Post cancelled all deliveries to large parts of Morwell. They stated that “this decision has been made after careful consideration for the health and well being of our postal delivery officers, which is our primary concern”. According to AAP, several schools, kindergartens and childcare centres have closed down.
These impacts are real, and it’s worth comparing them to the health claims put forward by groups dedicated to spreading fears around a wind energy technology, a competitor to coal.
No person has ever been diagnosed (by a registered health professional) with ‘wind turbine syndrome’, despite an estimated 32,789 people living within five kilometres of fifty wind farms in Australia. 64.7% of these wind farms have never been subject to a single health or noise complaint.
Worse still for groups propagating health fears around wind energy, several health authorities have explicitly stated that there is no evidence to suggest wind farms have health impacts, including the Victorian Department of Health and most recently, the National Health and Medical Research Council, who have released a draft systematic review, stating that “there is no reliable or consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans”.
It gets even worse. The actions of anti-wind groups are increasingly unpopular. The community of Waubra, the town originally used by anti-wind groups to coin the term ‘Waubra Disease”, has disavowed an anti-wind group known as the ‘Waubra Foundation’. Strong pleas from locals to remove ‘Waubra’ from ’The Waubra Foundation were refused, because “the name Waubra Foundation is revered by victims of wind projects worldwide”.
Despite growing antagonism towards anti-wind groups and an unequivocal absence of supporting evidence for ‘wind turbine syndrome’, Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently announced a study into the health impacts of wind energy. He has also criticised the Renewable Energy Target, stating that “We’ve got abundant coal….so we can be the affordable energy capital of the world”.
Prime Minister Abbott ought to ask the residents of Morwell how they feel about his vision of an Australia blanketed by an abundance of coal.
Perhaps the PM could explain to Morwellians why ‘lip vibrations’ and ‘disoriented echidnas’ supposedly caused by wind farms are more worthy of research funding than the health costs of coal-fired power. At the same time, he could spell out why wind farms are banned within five kilometres of any township in Victoria.
The impacts of the coal fire at Morwell, even using conservative estimates, are quite significant. Our current government seems to be steering us towards a greater reliance on the fuel that’s suffocating an entire Victorian town – a fuel that’s being labelled as cheap, when the costs are suddenly very real.
Prime Minister Abbott’s ‘affordable energy’ dream will have a serious and irreversible cost, and no quantity of myth will counter the harsh reality of the short-term health impacts of coal-fired power, and the long-term impacts of climate change.
Morwellians won’t be the last to bear the burden of the costs of coal, if we don’t act to alter our trajectory.
We can’t let our leaders disavow safe alternatives to fossil fuels, riding on the fragile wings of myth and fear. I hope they’ve a sceric of ethical fortitude, buried somewhere in the sea of simplicity we’ve seen so far.