Friday 28 February 2014

Australian town still blanketed in smoke three weeks after fire started at coalmine.

The town of Morwell roughly 100 km to the east of Melbourne in southern Victoria, Australia, is still blanketed in smoke three weeks after a fire was deliberately started at the GDF Suez Australian Energy operated Hazelwood Coal Mine, which lies to the south of the town. The fire was started on an area of the open pit mine, which is used to supply a power station at the same site, no longer under active excavation, which was apparently covered by soil and grass as part of an ongoing remediation plan.

Fire blazing on a coalface at the Hazelwood Coal Mine. Kieth Pakenham/County Fire Authority. 

Authorities in Victoria have not ordered a mandatory evacuation of the town, as carbon monoxide levels are not considered high enough, but have recommended that vulnerable people, such as the elderly, young children, pregnant women and anyone with pre-existing lung conditions, temporarily re-locate, and have distributed 25 000 face masks to concerned citizens.

Environmental groups in the area have called on the state government to do more, with the Victorian Greens calling for an organised evacuation of vulnerable persons and the Environmental Defenders Office calling for a full public enquiry into the incident. Local residents are said to be planning a demonstration, and considering a class law suit due to the disruption to business and health risks caused by the fire.

The Victoria Police have reported finding signs of an earlier attempt to start a fire at the site, probably dating from late January, suggesting that the fire started on 9 February was both deliberate and pre-meditated, rather than an accidental or opportunistic act.

February is generally the hottest and driest month of the year in Victoria, making fighting the fire particularly difficult, and raising the possibility of it triggering bush fires. The mine and surrounding area have further been affected by a series of large cracks which have opened up in the ground, suggesting that coal seems are burning beneath the surface. These have led to road closures, and further raise the risk of the fire spreading to new areas.

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