EPA not equipped for rapid response

RELATED COVERAGE: Carbon monoxide warning unnecessary: Lester

THE Environment Protection Authority has never been equipped to quickly deploy air-monitoring facilities in an emergency, the Inquiry into the Hazelwood mine fire heard this week.

Former EPA chief executive John Merritt said the organisation’s role had never been to quickly mobilise air-monitoring equipment and the Hazelwood fire was “unprecedented”.

The Inquiry heard the permanent monitoring station at Traralgon was not set up to measure fine particles known as PM2.5, although at the time of the fire it had been earmarked for an upgrade.

Over 12 and 13 February – three to four days after the fire began in the mine – a temporary monitoring station was re-commissioned in Morwell’s east. It had been placed at Ronald Reserve after monitoring sulphur dioxide levels in 2012/13 in relation to an application to establish a coal-burning facility.

The first PM2.5 readings began in the town’s south on 13 February when a “dust track” was installed at the Morwell Bowling Club. A mobile lab was not brought online at the club until a week later, the Inquiry heard.

Mr Merritt said mobile laboratories were “never contemplated to hook onto the car, drive it down to the Valley and plug it in”.

He said he did not believe the EPA could have acted any faster than it did.

“People moved heaven and earth to get them there in the time they did,” Mr Merritt said.

The Inquiry also heard the EPA had lost half of its air quality scientists in the last five years.

EPA air pollution scientist Dr Paul Torre told the Inquiry he requested to place disused CFA area rays around the perimeter of the mine.

He said on 13 February the EPA accessed two handheld carbon monoxide monitors from a private company.

The Inquiry heard on 22 February the EPA deployed a “travel blanket” air monitoring device which attached to vehicles and was driven on a set route to gauge the level of dissipation of fine particles. The equipment had to come from Tasmania.

It heard there was a delay in providing the results of benzene level testing and locations including the Morwell Early Learning Centre and the Morwell Bowling Club exceeded the standard level.

The EPA ceased water sampling in Wallace Street based on advice from the Department of Health that it was “not necessary”, the Inquiry was told.

The Inquiry has heard on 15 and 16 February there was only indicative air quality data available for the southern side of Morwell.

In a report provided to the Inquiry, an overview of the levels of fine particles found from 14 February until 31 March, the area south of Commercial Road had 21 days where the levels of PM2.5 exceeded the advisory standard of 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

Four of these days were estimated in the “extreme” category with readings greater than 250 micrograms per cubic metre. Dr Torre estimated on Sunday, 16 February levels could have been as high as 500 or 700 micrograms.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said.

The Inquiry heard the standard for PM2.5 was only an “advisory”, not a “compliance standard”, meaning the EPA cannot take action against the emitter if the level is exceeded.

Mr Merritt said the standard had not been affirmed nationally because of disagreement within the scientific community, with some taking the view there may be “no safe level of exposure”.

However, it was nevertheless the standard the EPA worked to.

The Inquiry heard the EPA had two meetings with representatives from Latrobe City Council last year during which council raised concerns about a reduction of air monitoring in the Latrobe Valley by emitters since the privatisation of the State Electricity Commission.

Dr Torre said under the SEC there were more than 20 air monitoring stations and these had been reduced to two; one at Rosedale and one at Jeeralang.