The Victorian Health Department has said there is “no evidence” in data suggesting an increase in the death rate during the Hazelwood mine fire.
The Registry Births Deaths and Marriages data gathered by community group Voices of the Valley and analysed by Queensland University of Technology Associate Professor Adrian Barnett estimated an 89 per cent probability the death rate was 15 per cent higher in the period of the fire.
It suggests there were 11 premature deaths in February and March in the postcodes surrounding the open cut mine – including Morwell, Churchill, Moe and Traralgon.
Health Minister David Davis rejected the data based on Health Department analysis the death rate in fact fell by 19 per cent in the same months.
“What I would say very clearly is the evidence does not support the contention made by a number of commentators and indeed supports the opposite contention, there was no increase in the death rate due to the fire,” Mr Davis said.
In a statement the Health Department also pointed to extreme heat conditions as opposed to air pollution, as a potential cause of death.
It said the data did not take into account the age and sex in the deaths, cause of death and other external factors such as heatwaves and influenza season.
“It is well known that heat, particularly sustained high temperatures, can cause increased mortality in the most vulnerable individuals. This may explain some of the 2014 data,” the statement said.
“A more detailed analysis of the data including these factors is needed to make any further comment on the cause of any observed increase.”
Mr Davis also noted Professor Adrian Barnett had undertaken research for the Greens party on the health effects of air pollution.
“It’s important for the community to know he’s done work for a political party,” Mr Davis said.
However, Voices of the Valley president Wendy Farmer said the Health Minister was engaged in a “cover up” when he claimed death statistics for Morwell indicate fewer deaths during the fire.
“He knows full well that two thirds of Morwell residents fled during the fire, and that huge health impacts were experienced throughout the Latrobe Valley,” Mrs Farmer said.
VOTV member Ron Ipsen said the government’s analysis only used Morwell, and did not take into account towns within a 15 kilometre radius of the Hazelwood mine.
“I think they’re trying to hide from the truth and fudging the figures to make it misleading,” Mr Ipsen said.
Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews said the data was “very worrying” and supported the community group’s call to reopen the Inquiry and a coronial investigation to address the data.
“(Morwell residents) were left behind, they were betrayed, now we see significant deficiencies in the Board of Inquiry’s work. There’s very clear evidence there has been a spike in the death rate during the Morwell mine fire disaster,” Mr Andrews said.
The Department said it would attempt to obtain more data to inform further analysis and intended to request an opinion from a university public health unit on the analysis.