Mine fire likely contributed to some of the increase in Latrobe Valley deaths: report

The reopened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry has found it is likely the fire contributed to some of the increase in deaths in the Latrobe Valley in 2014.

Tabled in State Parliament yesterday, the Board of Inquiry’s report found it is likely there was an increase in deaths in the Latrobe Valley between February and June 2014, when compared with the same period during 2009 to 2013.

“To have these deaths acknowledged is a step towards justice, but justice has not truly been served until the people of this area know that such a terrible thing can never occur again,” activist group Voices of the Valley president Wendy Farmer said.

“We were told the fire wasn’t dangerous, we were told we were just stirring up trouble, we were told to shut up and stop making noise, we would not sit down and be told what to do.”

In the wake of the report’s release, Ms Farmer said she felt mixed emotions: excitement that “the truth is out”, but sadness that people had died.

The inquiry’s findings came after Voices of the Valley responded to community concern about whether the mine fire had caused deaths.

It began with research through local death notices and the request of official statistics from the Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages.

An initial analysis by Queensland University of Technology Associate Professor Adrian Barnett of Births Deaths and Marriages data concluded there was an 89 per cent probability the death rate was higher during the mine fire than the statistical average for the Latrobe Valley in 2009-2013.

In considering whether the fire contributed to an increase in deaths, the inquiry heard from multiple experts including Associate Professor Barnett.

In its conclusion, the report stated the key findings were based on epidemiological reasoning informed by statistical analysis and interpretation, but that epidemiology was not an exact science and there was “no absolute proof” for the findings, rather they were the “most reasonable judgement based on the available evidence”.

The report stated it was not possible to attribute any specific death to the mine fire and it did not make any findings about whether the fire contributed to a specific number of deaths.

The board accepted conclusions reached by some experts that the most likely explanation for some of the increase in deaths in the Valley in 2014 was air pollution arising from the mine fire, and “possibly the bushfires that occurred at the same time”.

It also accepted it was unlikely that air pollution from the fire was solely responsible for the increase in deaths.

Health Minister Jill Hennessy described the report’s findings as “damning and disturbing”.

She said she believed members of the Latrobe Valley community were entitled to seek legal advice about their rights and entitlements.

Member for Morwell Russell Northe said he and the Coalition would work with the government to ensure the review’s recommendations were fully implemented.

The report also heavily criticised the Department of Health, stating had it adopted a more open and engaged approach about the possibility of an increase in deaths in the Valley due to the mine fire, the need to reopen the inquiry may have been avoided and similar findings to the board’s may have been reached earlier and at less expense.

“Unfortunately the Department of Health came to a premature view about the possibility of an increase in deaths in the Latrobe Valley due to the mine fire,” the report said.

“In the board’s opinion, the department became defensive in response to community concerns.”

Morwell and District Community Recovery Committee chair Carolyn Boothman said the committee was about to engage in conversations with the Department of Health and Human Services about how it communicated with the public in future.

She said the committee was not surprised by the inquiry’s findings.

“We were well aware the air at the time was disgraceful and that’s exactly why the recovery committee advocated so strongly for the health study,” Ms Boothman said.

GDF SUEZ Australian Energy highlighted the report’s statement that there was “no absolute proof” of the findings and that it was not possible to attribute any specific death to the mine fire.

The company said it was continuing to cooperate with the reopened inquiry and had been focused on working with the community, addressing the recommendations and affirmations of the Board’s 2014 report and managing the future risk of fire.