Hazelwood Mine Fire (12.03.2014)
Written on the 26 March 2014Mr SCHEFFER (Eastern Victoria) -- I move:
(i) severe impact the coal fire in the Hazelwood open-cut mine is having on the town of Morwell and other nearby locations in the Latrobe Valley;(ii) complexity of the fire and the difficult circumstances in the mine under which firefighters and other personnel are operating;
(iii) delayed response by government departments and agencies in providing information, services, and assistance to the community;(iv) conjecture about the fire prevention, electricity redundancy, and rehabilitation strategies in place and the extent to which the incident could have been avoided or the severity reduced; and
(v) announcement by the government that the Honourable Bernard Teague, AO, will head a board of inquiry into the circumstances and events surrounding the Hazelwood fire;
(b) further notes that the Premier's announcement makes no commitment to the public release of the inquiry's findings or any requirement to report to the Parliament;
(c) urges the board of inquiry to conduct public hearings in, but not limited to, the Latrobe Valley, and to specifically call as witnesses:(i) the Secretary of the Department of State Development, Business and Innovation;
(ii) the Secretary of the Department of Health;(iii) the Secretary of the Department of Human Services;
(iv) the Environment Protection Authority;(v) the chief health officer, Dr Rosemary Lester;
(vi) the fire services commissioner, Mr Craig Lapsley;(vii) the chief officer, Country Fire Authority;
(viii) the chief commissioner, Victoria Police;(ix) the State Emergency Services;
(x) GDF SUEZ;(xi) SP AusNet;
(xii) the United Firefighters Union;(xiii) Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria;
(xiv) Advance Morwell;(xv) the CFMEU Mining and Energy Division;
(xvi) Latrobe Community Health Service;(xvii) Latrobe City Council;
(xviii) any contractors the committee deems appropriate; and(xix) any other witnesses the committee may seek to call.
(2) the house will consider the contents of the report in September 2014.
I will begin by commending the great work of Victoria's firefighters, police, emergency services personnel, medical people -- nurses, doctors and paramedics -- public servants, including those from the Department of Human Services, local government and local government staff and many community organisations and volunteers who fought the fires and who provided support and encouragement to those in need.
Even though the fire has been declared to be under control, and we are extremely thankful for that, it is not yet extinguished. The smoke continues to be drawn into houses and blow down the streets, although last night's rain may have done some good. We also owe a special debt of gratitude to all those who came to Morwell from other parts of Victoria and from other states to help bring the fire under control and to support the community.I commend the leadership of the authorities: Dr Rosemary Lester, the chief health officer; Craig Lapsley, the fire services commissioner; Ken Lay, the Chief Commissioner of Police; and the incident controller, Bob Barry. As I said yesterday in my members statement, there can be no tougher job than to lead in circumstances that are as complex and as fraught as this fire in the Hazelwood open-cut mine. I acknowledge that the government has finally announced the establishment of a board of inquiry into the Hazelwood fire and its effects, which will be headed by the Honourable Bernard Teague, AO, and I wish the board well in its difficult task.
The motion before us notes that the government has not made a clear commitment to the public release of any interim or final reports that the board will produce. I believe the Parliament should have an opportunity to consider what the board through its reports has to say.I also place on the record that over the period of the fires no less than eight front-bench members of the opposition, including the Leader of the Opposition and member for Mulgrave in the Assembly, Daniel Andrews, visited Morwell and met with people who were fighting the fires, local government officials, representatives of GDF SUEZ and many local organisations and individual members of the community.
I am bound to say at the outset that the widespread feeling in Morwell and Gippsland is that people were failed by this government at the very moment when clear, open and democratic leadership was urgently needed. We know that a number of bush and grassfires flared across Gippsland in the weeks leading up to the fire in the mine. It is important to understand that the fire effort was sustained over a long period and that firefighters were exhausted.After almost a month of polluted air and the constant anxiety that came with not knowing what was happening and concern for the men and women on the fire front on the south side of the Princes Freeway, residents of Morwell were also exhausted.
This motion seeks to do two things. It provides members in this chamber with an opportunity to collectively place on the record on behalf of the community some of what has happened in Morwell and the very difficult circumstances and potential danger in which the citizens of that town have been placed. The motion also provides the house with an opportunity to respond constructively to the widespread call in the community for an investigation into what has happened. Everyone in this chamber will have huge confidence in the integrity of former Justice Teague to conduct a thorough investigation, and the government did well to enlist his services.The motion should be supported. It encourages the Premier, in his discussions with Mr Teague over the final terms of reference, to call for all the board's findings and reports, as well as submissions, to be released to the public, for the hearings to be held in public and as many of those hearings as possible to be held in the Latrobe Valley. The Premier has already indicated that the secretariat to the board of inquiry will be established in Morwell, and that is a very good thing. It makes sense to have the hearings held there as a default so as many residents as possible can listen to those proceedings and be engaged.
The motion seeks to give the Parliament an opportunity to consider the findings and recommendations of the board of inquiry's investigation so the government has the benefit of hearing the views of members of
Parliament, the representatives of the people of Victoria. I think the motion is measured, proportionate and fair, and I see no reason everyone in this chamber should not support it.
The smell did not disappear inside buildings, and the staff on the first floor of the Latrobe City Council building on Commercial Road worked with this heavy, acrid smell for weeks on end. Wind gusts carried smoke and dust and everywhere particles settled on faces and clothing, on footpaths, parked cars, street furniture, the very leaves of the plants, window ledges, front steps and porches. It blew under the doors and cracks into the houses. At times the streets were almost deserted and those who were outside wore face masks. The shops were empty of customers and losing business. Commercial Road Primary School stood silent because the children had been sent out of harm's way.On a good day when the wind subsided and the sun broke through Morwell looked almost normal, except for the rank smell and the certain knowledge that it was toxic, not fresh, air that was filling your lungs.
The unpredictability of the air quality from hour to hour and from day to day and the time it could take for the fire to be put out is what wore people down, as well as the knowledge that not far away, just over the freeway, firefighters battled in the poisonous smoke against massive firewalls on the north and south batters.The exhausting unpredictability and the growing anxiety was not only about the weather, it was also a function of not knowing what was happening in the Hazelwood mine itself, and Morwell residents voiced their fears that this fire, owing to its sheer scale, was different to anything the town and the Latrobe Valley had experienced before. Just about every person living in Morwell has either worked in a coalmine or had a family member who has worked in one so what mines look like, how they operate, what can go wrong and how breakdowns are fixed is part of the collective knowledge of the community.
With one of the highest rates of asbestos-related and dust-borne disease in the country, the people of Morwell know a thing or two about air quality in an industrial region. Of course this knowledge is not always up to date or precisely accurate, but people in Morwell know from very long experience how to read a situation and they know when official pronouncements from generators or public officials make sense and when they do not.Around 7 February when the fires began Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) issued low-level smoke alerts for areas across the state that were fire affected and a few days later, by 13 February, smoke alerts for the Latrobe Valley were increased to high level. Alert levels went up and down for a few days, and by 20 February WIN News reported that the EPA had doubled its air monitoring, analysing the particles, ash and carbon monoxide data, and had brought in partner agencies from Tasmania to assist if needed.
On 21 February WIN News reported that the EPA said that there was no need for concern and that it was monitoring air particles, but the very next day the EPA issued a high-level alert and launched a dedicated website to increase public access to up-to-date information. The alert levels continued to bounce around but on the afternoon of 26 February the EPA warned of immediate severe smoke impacts and issued high-level alerts for the evening. This continued from 27 February to 2 March when the alert level lowered.Running alongside these EPA announcements Morwell residents were also receiving advice and updates from the chief health officer, Dr Rosemary Lester, who on 11 February advised that children, the elderly and those with existing heart or lung conditions should not go outside unless they had to and should not participate in strenuous physical activity outdoors.
This was the consistent message from Dr Lester and the health department until 28 February when Dr Lester advised that people aged over 65, preschool-aged children, pregnant women and anyone with a pre-existing heart or lung condition living or working in the southern part of Morwell should consider temporary relocation outside the area affected by the smoke.Dr Lester also consistently and publicly said that Morwell residents are not expected to suffer long-term health consequences from the smoke and ash, but frankly this news failed to reassure those people experiencing headaches, nausea, sore throats and itching eyes. On 4 March Dr Lester reported that while some 1300 people had visited the community health assessment centre in Morwell -- of course that figure is far higher now -- there had been no significant increase in presentations to Latrobe Regional Hospital, even though GPs were reporting increased demand.
To summarise what we have covered so far, the Morwell community was directly experiencing very bad and persistent atmospheric effects from the Hazelwood fire over a number of weeks. The EPA was advising low to severe smoke levels and the chief health officer was counselling members of the community to limit their exposure by staying indoors or, in the case of vulnerable groups, leaving town. Many people felt the advice from the authorities was hard to understand, internally inconsistent and inconsistent with what people were actually experiencing. As a result, the credibility of these messages was questioned.
Maryvale Crescent Preschool closed on 17 February, and on 19 February the education department announced that children from Commercial Road Primary School were to be relocated to schools away from the smoke.On the same day the community respite centre was opened in Moe, which incidentally is 16 kilometres from the most exposed parts of Morwell, and a couple of days later, on 21 February -- two weeks after the fire started affecting the town -- the community health assessment centre was opened. The community information recovery centre opened on 28 February, which was three weeks after the fire impacts started, which served to increase the perception across the town that the authorities were too slow, that the government did not have a handle on what people were putting up with and that things were palpably sliding out of control.
The growing sense of a worsening situation was not helped by media reports that up to 20 firefighters were being treated for carbon monoxide exposure, or by the announcement from Victoria Police and Ambulance Victoria that officers who are pregnant or are planning to have a baby should not accept shifts at the fire staging ground because of potential exposure to carbon monoxide.Morwell residents heard David Cliff, a professor of occupational health and safety in mining from the University of Queensland, say on ABC TV on 4 March that some of the chemicals in the air from the coal fire are carcinogens, that they have very low thresholds to cause harm and that their effects may not appear for 20 years.
The Latrobe Valley has a high incidence of asbestos-related disease -- seven times the national average -- and I know from conversations with Vicki Hamilton, OAM, the CEO of Gippsland Asbestos Related Disease Support and Asbestos Council of Victoria (GARDS/ACV), that the smoke from the Hazelwood fire was having negative health impacts on people suffering from an asbestos-related disease. The smoke was affecting their breathing and keeping many of them at home with their doors and windows shut. Members will recall that this was a time of very high temperatures, so it would have been extremely uncomfortable and stuffy in those houses.It also would have meant residents were not receiving the medication and care they needed to keep them as healthy and pain-free as possible.
Ms Hamilton told me that others were keeping their air conditioners running at home, but I do not know how well their particular air-conditioning units would have been able to filter out any pollutants from the air outside. Alternatively people suffering from asbestos-related diseases went to local service clubs or shopping centres out of Morwell, and a number of them dropped into the GARDS/ACV office in Newborough for a chat and some respite to help with their breathing. Ms Hamilton told me that the GARDS/ACV oxygen supplier said the rate of oxygen use in the area had doubled.Many people who today suffer from asbestos-related diseases breathed in the asbestos dust decades ago, not knowing the stuff was toxic and lethal.
It took decades for the state of Victoria to acknowledge and apologise to sufferers for this terrible disease, and to date more than $400 million has been paid out to affected workers. The people of Morwell are justifiably terrified when they hear experts like Professor Cliff say the smoke from the Hazelwood mine may well result in terrible health consequences for a new generation of Latrobe Valley citizens.
Everyone understands that the management of this disaster is extremely complex and that highly professional people have been called upon to make the most complex decisions. I have already indicated on behalf of the opposition that we all owe a debt of gratitude to those fighting the fires and supporting the community, and we all recognise that this is an unprecedented event, but the point I make is that the effect of public announcements is inevitably double edged. There should be transparency and authorities should tell it like it is, but the effect of that information in the context of real threats, real danger and community distress can settle some people but alarm others.
When people saw Craig Lapsley, the fire services commissioner, and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) announce they were searching the world to find qualified people to advise on how best to manage the fire, when experts were brought in from Queensland Mines Rescue Service and from Fire and Rescue New South Wales and when expert engineers, including one from Texas, were brought in to review the use of foams on brown coal fires, many people were even further alarmed.
Craig Lapsley said on 19 February that he did not believe the triggers were there that would warrant a voluntary evacuation. However, many in the community were puzzled because, as I said earlier, on the very same day children from Commercial Road Primary School were in effect evacuated to schools outside the locality. In the same way, when well-respected former State Electricity Commission (SEC) fire service manager Bill Brown said something catastrophic had happened and that fire suppression systems, including reticulation, should have been in place to stop what happened, some people in Morwell were alarmed -- even panicked -- while others, I guess, felt settled as a result of being better informed.Mr Brown's remarks underscored those made by Latrobe City Councillor and senior Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union mining division official Graeme Middlemiss that during the last decade the CFA has taken a much broader fire protection responsibility, replacing the operations of the old SEC, and that the current fire incident shows that this strategy has not been effective.
This caused many people to reflect on how well Hazelwood and other coalmines and power plants are regulated and whether these facilities all have appropriate and effective fire prevention and protection procedures in place. Cr Middlemiss reflected the alarm of many in the community when he expressed his concern that the foam which proved critical in bringing the fire under control had to be shipped in from Tasmania and was not ready to hand in the Latrobe Valley. People are asking: how is it that a critically important firefighting substance is not right there in the Latrobe Valley?The concern expressed by Cr Middlemiss regarding the effectiveness of the electrical backup also struck a chord with many people in Morwell who were troubled by the remarks made by GDF SUEZ spokesperson Luke Deitvorst that both parts of the dual power supply that was supposed to feed the firefighting pumps were knocked out by the fire and that firefighting efforts relied on what Mr Deitvorst said was a gravity-fed water supply.
There are many reasons for the growing anxiety amongst people living in Morwell, and not least amongst them is the time it took to get urgent things done. Why did it take more than a week, as I said earlier, for the respite centre to be established, and why was it that the only advice Department of Human Services staff were able to give people was that they should call a 1800 number? Why did it take 12 days after the start of the fire before the health assessment centre was opened and three weeks before the information and recovery centre was opened?Why was the availability of facemasks so mismanaged, and why have the most vulnerable people -- those with disabilities and their families -- been virtually forgotten?
In times of crisis people expect and need to see their elected representatives with them in the streets, in community centres and meeting places, listening, informing and calming. In this case these representatives needed to show confidence in the authorities and agencies charged with the responsibility of fighting the fire and caring for the community. A community in danger, such as Morwell, has the right to see its leaders play a central role in bringing the authorities and agencies together to ensure they speak with one voice in the context of a coordinating planning regime. This is what we saw former Premier Ted Baillieu do during the January 2011 floods in northern Victoria.If you look at the stories that were in the media at that time, you will see Mr Baillieu photographed in the flooded towns, talking with emergency service teams and schoolchildren, in community halls and with his senior ministers. This is the Victorian way. This was the way of John Brumby during the 2009 Black Saturday fires and of former Premier Steve Bracks during the fires and floods of 2007. Can the people of the city of Morwell say the same thing of the current Premier?
The member for Morwell in the Assembly, Russell Northe, saw things going from bad to worse in Morwell. I am absolutely sure he did his best to get things moving and to make the messaging clearer and more consistent. But even he, as a member of the government, had to admit that the response should have been quicker -- and people in Morwell agree with him. On 24 February he called for an investigation into the management of the community's health and wellbeing. Can you imagine that? Just think about that: a member of the governing party was pressured to call out his own Premier, who for all the people of Morwell knew was more concerned about the Liberal preselection vote in Kew than their plight. Russell Northe said publicly that the messages from government departments were too slow and inconsistent, and he conceded that even he himself could have fought harder -- but anyone with a heart would feel that.
I do not want to dwell on the role of the government, but the record needs to show that there is disquiet, disappointment and anger in the community over the fact that the Premier and ministers were far too slow in standing up for Morwell.
On 28 February the Premier and Deputy Premier conducted a media conference in the Latrobe City Council building behind a police guard. At the same time a block away in Hazelwood Road the chief health officer, the fire services commissioner and the Chief Commissioner of Police faced the media and the public on the footpath outside the Department of Justice. The Premier left the leaders of the three key authorities to advise Morwell residents living south of the rail line to relocate. Those leaders responded, in the absence of the elected leadership, to a barrage of questions and the full emotion of the community.That was followed up by the incredibly undignified spectacle, shown on television, of the Deputy Premier running a gauntlet of United Firefighters Union of Australia and community members in a Traralgon street. This brought him and the government absolutely no credit.
People are angry that while firefighters were working 16 to 20-hour shifts to the point of exhaustion, exposing themselves to possible carcinogens and smoke, the government was playing hardball on industrial claims. Morwell residents ask themselves: how could it be that the EPA's water testing was not rigorous enough and that it was only because the tests commissioned by the United Firefighters Union showed that water in the mine was contaminated that the fire commissioner asked the EPA to change its testing regime?What are the people of Morwell and the Latrobe Valley to make of media reports that the Department of State Development, Business and Innovation inspected what is now the site of the fire on 9 January? GDF SUEZ is reported to have said that WorkSafe Victoria inspected the mine in June 2012 and that inspections were undertaken after the fires of 2007 and 2008.
To be fair, GDF SUEZ issued a media release on 20 February responding to some of the key criticisms that have been levelled, and I understand that its staff have begun a series of meetings in the community. That is a good thing.This morning's Age contains a piece Tom Arup wrote entitled, '--Green tape-- can prevent black days and red faces'. Mr Arup raises a number of important issues that I am sure the board of inquiry will take up in due course, and they are worth placing on the record as well. Mr Arup asks the questions being asked in the Morwell community, such as why were the sprinkler systems in the mine stripped out? Why were disused parts of the mine, still smouldering, not rehabilitated properly? He asks in the article if it is true that GDF SUEZ is running down the facility. He notes that a 2012 Auditor-General's report found that the Department of Environment and Primary Industries does not have sufficient policies and systems in place to ensure that business is complying with current law.
It is not possible for me or any of us today to settle the conjectures that have arisen as a result of the fire in the Hazelwood mine. People right across the state are dismayed to hear, in bits and pieces, a story emerge of what may be unacceptable practices at the Hazelwood mine, and they want to hear more from the mine owners, GDF SUEZ. They are incredibly unimpressed with the little they have heard so far.As I said earlier, I support the government's appointment of the Honourable Bernard Teague, AO, to head up the board of inquiry. I believe this chamber should, as the motion states, encourage the government and the board of inquiry to publicly release the inquiry's findings and reports and give the Parliament the opportunity in September this year to fully consider everything the board has found, everything it has reported on and everything it has recommended. I commend the motion to the house.
Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) -- I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to the debate we have before us this morning on Mr Scheffer's motion. It is a rather long motion so I will not go through all the elements of it. I will make some brief comments in relation to various points Mr Scheffer has raised, and I know other members on the government side will also be doing so because this issue affects their local communities.
I have to agree with Mr Scheffer in relation to some of his comments about the complexity of the fire and the work of the fire and emergency services personnel, who have been working for a number of weeks. Let us just go back to that day of 7 February or thereabouts. It was reported to be the worst fire day since Black Saturday in 2009. Victorians all remember that dreadful day and were on high alert. A lot was learnt from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission in relation to that very significant day for Victorians. Some of those things include an increase in our emergency services and the work of the Country Fire Authority and the appointment of the fire services commissioner, Craig Lapsley, who does a tremendous job in organising and running the personnel for which he is responsible.
Paragraph (1)(a)(ii) of Mr Scheffer's motion talks about the 'complexity of the fire and the difficult circumstances in the mine under which firefighters and other personnel are operating'. Let us not forget that this fire was, I believe, started on 7 February and ended up in the mine on 9 February.
Let us also not forget that this fire was deliberately lit by an arsonist, not in one place but in a number of places. We have to understand the very nature of this fire, the very nature of what happened on that day and how it impacted the community. There is considerable discomfort to the people of Morwell; I acknowledge that. We have all been watching various news clips and news items in relation to the smoke plume and the very uncomfortable situation those people have unfortunately been placed in due to the act of an arsonist.
Yesterday's announcement by the Premier of the establishment of an independent inquiry into Hazelwood mine fire, which will be headed by the Honourable Bernard Teague, is an important announcement. It will be a very important inquiry because many of the issues raised by Mr Scheffer will be addressed in that very inquiry. It is important to note that Justice Teague's secretariat will be based in Morwell, and this will allow all affected parties to have their say.It is significant that the secretariat and the inquiry are going to be based in Morwell, going down to the very community that has been so adversely affected. That, I believe, is testament to the government's commitment to be open and transparent and allow the views of the community to be heard.
As I said, this has been a very difficult and distressing time for the people of Morwell and for those people who have been affected. The chief health officer, Dr Rosemary Lester, who has been monitoring the situation over the past few weeks, has advised that we do not anticipate seeing any long-term health effects from this fire. I am pleased and reassured that she has put that statement out.This fire was lit on 7 February, and on 9 February it became apparent that it was in the mine. It became a very complex fire. We have seen those infrared pictures of the fire. It has now been contained, and I hope the recent rain would have also contributed to bringing this fire under control.
When the fire got into the mine, it soon became apparent that air quality was being affected. You could see that just from the plumes. I am sure that those in the area -- like the member for Morwell in the Assembly, Russell Northe, who has been working very hard with the local community -- would be only too well aware of that very uncomfortable air quality, as would Mr Ronalds, who has also been working very hard down in that area, and I am sure he will have more to say in relation to that.Warnings were issued to vulnerable members of the affected communities, and these were backed up in the media by the chief health officer. Vulnerable members of the community were identified. Obviously those who have respiratory diseases would be severely affected by smoke in the air, as would the very young, the very old and people with chronic diseases. Pregnant women would also be at risk. Warnings were made on a number of occasions.
Multiple media were used to ensure that this message was spread, including fact sheets, paid and unpaid media, and door-to-door communication with residents. There was significant activity in getting the information out to members of the community.In addition, the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services (DHS) established a community respite centre at the Moe town hall, which was open between 9.00 a.m. and 7.00 p.m. on a daily basis to provide relief from the smoke for people in the nearby town of Morwell. As we have seen over the past few weeks as this event continued, the decision was made that additional services were needed, leading to the establishment of a community health assessment centre, which will continue to operate until at least the end of this month. We hope it will have concluded by that point, the fire having been extinguished.
Nevertheless, it is there, and that demonstrates the department's commitment to ensure that those vulnerable members of our community have some respite. As I said, this has been an important service for the people of Morwell, providing residents with reassurance about their health through health checks and advice from ambulance paramedics and nurses. I believe a number of GPs, as well as other allied health professionals, have worked very hard to enable those health checks to be undertaken and to reassure members of the community.
The decision to recommend the relocation of vulnerable individuals from Morwell South was precautionary, based on the advice of the fire services commissioner at the time that the event would continue for at least a further two weeks. This advice remains in place. That is very significant, because that is where the mine is and that is where significant smoke was generated from, and so residents in that area were obviously affected to a greater degree than others. That is why the fire services commissioner made that precautionary decision and, as I said, that relocation continues to this point.
As Mr Scheffer said, it has been a complex fire in its very nature, and the fire itself, as I stated at the outset, was commenced in a deliberate fashion by an arsonist.Mr Barber -- You do not know that. Won't the inquiry determine that?
Ms CROZIER -- The inquiry will determine that; Mr Barber is absolutely right. The inquiry that has been set up by the government will get to all those points, but indications from reports -- --Mr Barber -- Do not pre-empt the findings.
Ms CROZIER -- No, I will not pre-empt the findings, but there have been reports.I am only saying that if that is the case -- if the inquiry concludes that the fire was deliberately lit and that an arsonist was responsible -- then let us hope the full hand of the law will deal with that particular individual.
The chief health officer, Dr Lester, has been in the community of Morwell on a regular basis. She sought further advice from external experts, who concurred that while short-term irritation and risk were very real -- and Mr Scheffer spoke of some of those irritations, such as itchy eyes and sore throats; obviously smoke is an irritant and can cause various irritations to individuals -- the long-term effects were not likely to be significant. Dr Lester has consulted with the council, health services, Medicare local, GPs in the Latrobe Valley, all those agencies I mentioned and allied health personnel, and undertaken almost daily press conferences.She has been very engaged with the local community, getting that information out, working with the various health agencies, really looking into the situation and being very concerned with the overall best interests of that community.
This was a significant event and has been ongoing for some weeks, and it is interesting to note that there has not been an increase in ambulance callouts or the use of the Nurse on Call service. They have reported only a small increase in demand. I understand GPs have reported some increase, but that is largely related to the effects of the smoke and is well within their capacity to manage. It is not unexpected, as I said, with the significant amount of smoke in the air and the degree of air quality.It is fair to say that this event has been a very upsetting time for the people of Morwell.
Let us not pre-empt what the inquiry will find, but if it finds that the fires were deliberately lit, it will be a lesson for many people across Victoria. I do not think they will take kindly to an individual who has undertaken such an act.The Premier's announcement yesterday to set up an inquiry should be applauded, and I commend him for doing so. I note that the terms of reference will broadly examine the regulatory regime that applies to the Hazelwood mine, the adequacy and effectiveness of the emergency response, how the fire started and spread into the mine and the adequacy of the information provided to and the support given to the affected communities. The government is being completely open and transparent in relation to the information that it is trying to glean from this inquiry.
It is to be hoped a final report will be completed by the end of August this year.Former Justice Teague will be asked to report to the government by the end of August, and he has extensive experience, obviously, having headed the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission into the Black Saturday fires. The community can be reassured by the leadership of Mr Teague during this very important inquiry.
Obviously there are lessons to be learnt from such a complex fire, but I do not agree with all the points referred to by Mr Scheffer during his contribution to the debate on his motion. I will be interested to hear the contributions of other members in this debate, but I cannot agree with the proposition that government departments and agencies have not provided information services and assistance to the community in an appropriate and timely fashion. Emergency services, the fire services commissioner, Craig Lapsley, Dr Rosemary Lester, other professionals involved and Victoria Police have all done an extraordinary job, not to mention the hundreds of Country Fire Authority firefighters who have also done an extraordinary job in what has been a very complex and difficult fire to fight. I commend all those people involved. With those words I indicate that the government will not be supporting Mr Scheffer's motion.
Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) -- I thank Mr Scheffer for moving this motion in the house. It is totally appropriate that the house has an opportunity to express its view about how the inquiry into an incident as impactful as this might set about its task and what matters should be covered. It was the same with the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. However, unfortunately the government will not support this course of action.
We have just heard from Ms Crozier that there is really no need for the inquiry that her government has just announced.We have just heard the conclusions of the Crozier commission of inquiry, and if you were to listen to that, we can all be reassured -- in her words -- that everybody did a great job and everything was handled quite well. Having just listened to the lead speaker for the government, I find it somewhat perplexing to understand why the inquiry her government has just announced is needed. In fact the most important reason that this level of inquiry is required -- and the Greens have been calling for it for some time -- is not just to learn the lessons from the operational aspects of dealing with the fire and its effects as they unfolded; it is to finally get some accountability for the failure of political leadership that has been the hallmark of this incident at every stage.
We need to spend some time on this matter because there are many aspects to this incident. It is important for the inquiry to look at the full scope of matters from the adequacy of the fire suppression systems in and around the mine through to the cause of the fire, which is still unknown.Some information circulating in the valley is that the fire that Ms Crozier was referring to may itself not actually have been the original source of the ignition of the fires burning in the mine and that it might have been something that had happened even a day earlier.
Before anyone goes down the track of leaping to conclusions, which is what the government speaker seemed to be doing, we should not assume anything about the events that led up to this crisis. We should keep an open mind as to what the inquiry might find, and that is why Mr Scheffer's motion is so appropriate and why the Greens will be supporting it. It invites members of the chamber to talk about the questions that the inquiry should be asking and is not about leaping to conclusions the way government speakers have done. It was my observation that the government was on the back foot all the way with this matter. It seemed to be incapable of keeping up with the events as they unfolded and developing the appropriate response at the appropriate time.I will give my observations of what occurred over the period of the fire in a discursive way. Fighting a coal fire of this size and scale is not something that emergency services authorities are required to do every day. There have been a number of smaller fires in coalmines in the Latrobe Valley over a number of years, so the incident and the possibility of the incident was not completely novel. But certainly the scale of what emergency services ended up dealing with was unprecedented in Victoria, and quite possibly there are very few similar examples around the world.
In the first few days of the fire the Country Fire Authority (CFA) was doing what it does best: it was fighting the fire. The fire was listed on the CFA fire app in the same way as every other fire -- every other bushfire, grassfire, building fire and car fire. There was a location, and there was a description of the fire. Most of the time what we want to know about a fire is: where is it and how fast is it moving towards my community?The fire was for the most part contained in the mine; it was the smoke from the fire that was doing the damage. In the early days, from my direct observation, the CFA was managing the fire. But it was also managing the community response, where normally it would be expected to do just one of those things. In the first week, the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA), the Department of Health and all those other support agencies were either absent from the scene or not responding in any meaningful way to the community's concerns. That was left to the CFA.
That was the situation as I found it when I first visited the fire at Hazelwood, the incident control centre and the surrounding towns on the Sunday after the fire had first commenced -- that is, a week or so later. In the following days, after I returned to Parliament and then more than a week after the ignition, the CFA's information was that the EPA was saying that the Department of Health was saying that there was smoke in the Latrobe Valley due to bushfires.At 4 o'clock on the Tuesday that we were sitting in this Parliament, that was what the warning still was. By 9 o'clock that night the official warning that goes with every fire was that the smoke was due to a coalmine burning. It took that long, more than a week, for the official information -- the one source everybody goes to to find out about a fire -- to be correctly updated to reflect reality.
In the following week the EPA started to roll into town, setting up its monitoring equipment and getting it filmed by the TV cameras to say, 'Look at what we are doing'. But all it was able to do was tell us what anybody who understands the impacts of particulate smoke could have told us: that thick smoke of that nature is more than simply an annoyance and by simply observing visibility you can observe how severe that smoke is. A couple of days later, I think on the Friday two weeks later, we started to get live data. On that day I was returning from my second trip to the fire. I got on the train at Morwell at about 2 o'clock, and by 5 o'clock we were getting live data from the equipment the EPA had installed.
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