Call to relocate came too late

Generic, repetitive and too late.

That was the Board of Inquiry’s interpretation of information given to the community by the Department of Health.

The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry report found Chief Health Officer Rosemary Lester had enough information to advise vulnerable residents south of Commercial Road to consider relocating on the weekend of 15 and 16 February, but she did not do so until 28 February.

Yesterday a spokesperson for the Department of Health said Dr Lester “made a decision based on the best available evidence at the time”.

Member for Morwell Russell Northe said the government “accepted” the Inquiry’s criticism.

“If the clear, concise information was not forthcoming, then the anxiety levels rise,” he said.

“With the implementation (of the recommendations) I hope it will give some comfort to our community that we can now move forward.”

Levelling much of its criticism to the government’s response to poor air quality and health concerns, the Board acknowledged the Latrobe Valley already has significant health challenges and found the impacts of the mine fire further compromised poor health and wellbeing, “such that some residents feel more distrustful of government agencies and services than they previously did”.

The Board labelled the Department of Health’s smoke advisories as generic and repetitive, with little practical advice about how to minimise the harmful effects of smoke.

“When a community is covered in smoke, residents need advice about how to protect themselves. Schools and businesses need advice about whether to close and if outdoor events should be cancelled,” the report stated.

It said the bushfire smoke protocol should be revised to contain a “table of triggers”, detailing how and when people should respond to levels of smoke.

The Board found the department’s protocol for fine particles known as PM 2.5 “whilst appropriate”, was developed too late and by the time it was in place, the local community had already been subjected to elevated levels for over two weeks.

It has recommended Victoria take the lead in advocating for a national compliance standard for PM 2.5.

It also recommended the government review and revise the community carbon monoxide response protocol and the firefighter CO protocol to be consistent with each other, as it believed exposure standards for the community were too high, according to international experts.

“Levels that were not considered safe for firefighters and required evacuation, did not require the same response if the level was measured in the community,” the report stated.

“The Board considers it unfortunate that the Department of Health did not have in place pre-existing carbon monoxide protocol to provide advice to the community about elevated levels of carbon monoxide.”

The Board said it was concerned that the EPA reported very high levels of carbon monoxide to the Department of Health on 16 February.

“If these readings were taken over a four-hour period, they were high enough to warrant at least a watch and act alert protocol… the Department of Health did not consider the measurements adequate for decision-making since the carbon monoxide ones were ‘spot readings’.

“It does appear that there was no attempt to derive one or four-hour carbon monoxide levels from the indicative data that was available”.

One of the recommendations to the government is to equip itself to undertake rapid air quality monitoring – including CO, ozone and PM 2.5 – in any location in Victoria and ensure it is used to inform decision-making within 24 hours of the incident occurring.

However, the government has so far endorsed this in principle only. Mr Northe said it needed to get a better understanding of how it might work.

The Board commended establishment of the health assessment centre on 21 February at Ambulance Victoria in Morwell.

Mr Northe said the government would extend the study into the long-term health effects of the mine fire from 10 years to 20, as recommended by the Board.

The government is yet to award the tender to a research body. Applications to undertake the project closed on 31 July.

Mr Northe said the extension was possible, despite a “general rule of thumb” that the government did not award tenders for longer than 10 years.

The recommendation includes the appointment of an independent board, including Valley representatives, to govern the study and publish regular progress reports.