March 3, 2014
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (19:38): I rise to provide an update to the House on the Morwell mine fire, near the Hazelwood power station, which has attracted a lot of media attention in recent times. The fire continues to cause concern for a large number of residents in the Morwell region and the broader Latrobe Valley, residents who have been affected by both smoke and ash for more than three weeks now. There are some people who are angry. They are frustrated and concerned about the delays in suppressing the fire and the potential impact on their health and the wider community. It is human nature for some people to be anxious and upset in what is a very difficult situation.
I mentioned at the outset the media attention. I would like to appeal to the visiting media, primarily the metropolitan media, to be sensitive to our local community at this time. It is a very stressful time, and it has been going for more than three weeks. My local media—the ABC, 3TR, Latrobe Valley Express and WIN TV—have all acted very responsibly in highlighting the emergency warnings during the original outbreak and also have sought to raise legitimate concerns when they have come to light, but I think some of the metropolitan coverage has left a bit to be desired. I just urge those attending from out of town to make sure that they try to give some balance to the arguments, to reflect the community's views but also the enormous effort which is underway to overcome these very difficult issues. I accept that it is a very genuine news story, and I have no problem whatsoever with journalists and camera crews travelling to the Latrobe Valley to cover this event. I just urge them to be as balanced as they possibly can and not to fall for some of the extreme views which are being expressed by people with a hidden agenda who are also visiting our region.
On that point: the influx of people with political issues to push during this event is something that disgusts me. We have these camera-seeking activists and politicians who would not have been able to find Morwell on a map three weeks ago, and they are now beating a path to our community. I would like to take this opportunity to warn Gippsland and Latrobe Valley residents, in particular the Morwell and district community, that not all is what it seems with some of these visitors to our town. They are not acting in Morwell's best interests.
I would like to refer specifically to the Greens new-found interest in Morwell. Last weekend we had Senator Di Natale in the region expressing his concern for the health of residents, and I take that at face value. We have had the Victorian leader, Greg Barber, demanding that a state of emergency be declared. But what concerns me is that there seems to be a pattern of behaviour here where the Greens are trying to profit politically from the misery of others in the Latrobe Valley.
Everyone knows what the Greens true agenda is because it is published on their own website. I refer this evening to the website of the Greens and to this document in relation to the Hazelwood power station, which this fire is burning alongside. This document—for want of a better word, we will call it a poster—in reference to Hazelwood power station, is headlined 'Hazelwood horror': It says:
It's evil! It's toxic! 2005's most polluting power station in the industrial world! … what can I do?
It's dirty and unnecessary and it's time for it to go.
This is what the Greens are putting out. This is the propaganda they are putting out:
The best time to close Hazelwood was yesterday but the next best time is today.
'Take urgent action now to help us replace Hazelwood.'
I say to the Greens: how can you pretend to care for my community when your real plan is actually to take their jobs away? If you shut down Hazelwood power station and 500 jobs go tomorrow, what would that do to the health of the people in the Latrobe Valley and the broader Gippsland community?
The vast majority of my community has already seen through the holiness of the Greens and their antijobs agenda. In the last federal election, I think they returned a primary vote in the order of six per cent, so I suppose there is some concession for the Greens. They did beat the Palmer United Party, but that is about the only one they beat in the election campaign. I urge people in my communities to be very careful when they assess the comments being made by people who have just visited our region for the specific purpose of achieving a headline or getting their face in front of a camera.
Deputy Speaker Mitchell, as you would be well aware from your own electorate, fighting fires like this is primarily a state responsibility. The state agencies are on the ground and are both responding to the fire event and trying to meet the needs of the community more generally. I would like to take this opportunity—as I am sure you have in your own electorate, Deputy Speaker—to thank the volunteers particularly from the CFA but also from the Red Cross, the State Emergency Service and the whole range, the whole gamut, of community volunteer groups that make up our wonderful regional communities. They have been simply sensational in a very difficult time, so I particularly want to thank the volunteers for the work they have done.
More broadly, I want to thank the emergency service workers, the professional workers, in the sense of our fire and police personnel and our ambulance personnel but also the mineworkers, the mine firefighters, who have been very much at the forefront of this event in trying to suppress this fire, which, as I said, has been going for more than three weeks now. The health officials as well have been very busy. They have been extraordinary in their diligence in making sure that they are on hand to try and reassure residents, and they have been working long hours in these very difficult circumstances. And the much-maligned group that does not get much praise from communities is our local council workers. The council workers in the Latrobe Valley have had experience in dealing with tragedies in recent times. They are very good at responding to natural disasters, and they have been on the ground in numbers again helping our community.
Disturbingly, we believe that the fire that ignited the blaze in the Morwell mine was actually deliberately lit outside the mine. The Victoria Police have advised the public in recent days that the fire is believed to have started at a site on the Strzelecki Highway which is located between Morwell and Mirboo North on 9 February at about 1.30 pm. An arson chemist has inspected the site, and police are treating the fire as suspicious. They are appealing for public information. The details are quite specific: somewhere around 1.30 pm on 9 February during that appallingly hot day with difficult conditions and strong winds, the worst time to light a fire, it is believed that an arsonist was at work. It sickens all right-thinking people in our community to know that there is someone out there who has shown no regard whatsoever for life and property, has lit this fire and has caused the damage that it has caused. I appeal to anyone with information to contact their local police or Crime Stoppers and report that information.
I have told the House previously that the key issues as I see them in relation to the Morwell mine fire are threefold. Our No. 1 priority right now is to suppress the fire, and work is going on in that regard. We need to keep on caring for the health of the community, and then we need to deal with those longer-term issues of preventing a recurrence of the fire. I note that the state government Deputy Premier announced on the weekend that an inquiry will be held once the fire situation is controlled. I think that is a good thing; it is a wise thing. We need to learn from any mistakes which may have made in the past and take steps to prevent such an incident occurring in the future. Last week I raised the issue about the site where the fire has occurred—it is in a disused part of the mine. I raised the issue of whether it had been fully rehabilitated; keep in mind, this was 30 years ago. It was back in the old days of the SEC. Whether it was properly rehabilitated or not is one thing that will need to be fully explored as part of the inquiry process.
It is fair to say that at various times over the past three weeks people in the Morwell community have contacted my office and expressed their concern and their frustration, and that they have felt neglected. This event has impacted on them for so long. I would like to assure them that a great deal has been happening. It may not have always been obvious to them, but a great deal has been happening both behind the scenes and on the fire suppression front.
In relation to suppressing the fire, I get regular updates from the Hazelwood mine and also from the CFA. I understand there has been some very good progress made over the past few days and that fire activity in the mine has significantly reduced. That is a good thing. Obviously, when the fire activity is reduced the smoke that is generated by the fire is also reduced. Hopefully, if the prevailing wind conditions do not push the smoke towards the Morwell South community, there will be some relief for the local community. It is worrying that tomorrow, Tuesday, could be a challenging time for the firefighters. I understand that additional CFA strike teams have been brought into the region specifically in anticipation of the risk that fires may escape from the mine as they did last week. The intention is to have those strike teams respond to anything that occurs in that sense so that resources do not have to be diverted away from the main firefight, which is within the mine itself.
The strategy being used quite successfully along the coal bed is that an aviation fire tender that carries 9,000 litres of water and using an onboard nozzle, which actually seeks to penetrate the coal, drives through and cools an area. Then we have the compressed air foam units: the aerial trucks apply foam to soak into the fire for a few hours before the crews use thermal-imaging cameras to help extinguish the remaining hotspots. It is a pretty high-tech firefight. It is difficult to suppress coal fires—everyone is aware of that. It is heartening that progress is being made, but it is worrying that we are still looking at many more days of this fire continuing. We are in the lap of the gods, to some extent, in relation to the weather conditions and whether they assist the firefighters or act as a hindrance, as we fear they may tomorrow.
While this ongoing firefight is continuing within the Morwell mine itself we have, at the same time, a recovery operation underway. This is making things even more difficult for the state government agencies. In the nearby community, particularly the most impacted area of Morwell South, there is a whole range of activities underway in terms of trying to help the residents in that part of the region. There is a community respite centre in place which has been opened at the Moe town hall. It is providing local residents with access to information on the government services that are available to them, some general health information, and temporary respite from the smoky conditions. People are being invited to seek temporary respite in Moe, which is a township only 10 or 15 kilometres away. I thank the people of Moe for the support they are showing to their neighbours in Morwell. In addition to that, for residents who are concerned about the health impacts or potential health impacts of the fire, there is a community health assessment centre. It is located in Morwell itself at the Ambulance Victoria Gippsland regional office, which is adjacent to the Mid Valley Shopping Centre, and is providing basic primary health assessments to local residents. The centre was first opened on 21 February and expanded on 27 February. It has been providing an outstanding service. I visited there last Sunday and met some of the paramedics and health department staff who were there. They are providing primary health assessments such as blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and basic respiratory checks, such as chest sounds and respiratory rate, to reassure people that they are not at risk or to encourage them to seek further advice—either through their local doctor or the hospital if that is required. In addition to the respite centre and the health assessment centre, there is a community information recovery centre, which is in operation in Hazelwood Road in Morwell. There is a wide range of services there, from Latrobe City Council through to the Department of Human Services; the Red Cross; the Victorian Council of Churches; Ambulance Victoria; and EPA Victoria and the fire services themselves. This was established by the Department of Human Services in conjunction with Latrobe City Council.
For those residents who are having trouble breathing there are dust masks available for community members from Latrobe City Council headquarters in Morwell, at the Morwell library and at Morwell leisure centre. I understand that V/Line has been offering to help people travel out of the region by providing a free service for Morwell residents travelling to Melbourne; return services from there are on offer as well. Morwell residents wishing to take up that free travel offer can get in contact with V/line through their friendly staff at the local Morwell station. That is a good thing to see as well.
The community support has been outstanding. We have had groups like Scouts Victoria, which has offered hundreds of beds at scout camps across Victoria to the Morwell families who are choosing to take a break away from the smoke. Free accommodation has been made available at these popular campsites over the Labour Day long weekend as well, which will help some of the Morwell families and groups who are seeking a few nights in a different environment. I would encourage anyone who does choose to relocate to make sure they contact the Red Cross and register their intended location to help the authorities keep track of where people have moved to.
I would like to reassure residents that I have spoken to Victoria Police and been told that additional police patrols have been made available to keep an eye on their properties if they do relocate. As we know, on these occasions sometimes there are others who seek to profit from misery and cause mischief, for want of a better phrase. I am reassured Victoria Police is on top of that issue as well.
As members would expect, if this is going on there is a need for financial assistance to help people who may not have the capacity themselves to relocate. I can report that the federal government has supported the Victorian government at all times during what has been a very traumatic event. I have personally provided updates to the Prime Minister and the justice minister, who I know has also received regular updates and briefings from Victorian emergency services Minister Kim Wells. In Morwell on Friday we had the Premier, the Deputy Premier and health minister making an announcement that the Chief Health Officer had recommended some at-risk people relocate on a voluntary basis. The temporary relocation is encouraged for people who: are aged over 65; have preschool aged children; are pregnant; or have a pre-existing heart or lung condition, living or working in the Morwell South area or south of the railway line. The full advice on the temporary relocation is available through the Department of Human Services.
To assist people with that, the federal government is supporting the Victorian government with the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. Under that, category D assistance provides for voluntary relocation payments of up to $1,250 per week per eligible household, to allow vulnerable residents living in that part of the fire affected area to temporarily relocate away from the smoke. The cost of this package will be shared by the Commonwealth and the state, as is the normal practice under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements.
The state government has also recognised that there is significant risk of damage to the reputation of Morwell and the Latrobe Valley more generally, and there is a concern that jobs may be at risk in the future. I understand the Victorian Premier has announced a $2 million fund to provide assistance directly to businesses affected by the Hazelwood fire. Their additional support measures will also include specialised coaching and advice for small business owners.
I close by simply saying this is a very difficult time for the people of Morwell and the Latrobe Valley and surrounding communities. I have been working with my state colleague the member for Morwell, Russell Northe, my federal neighbour Russell Broadbent and the local council, and I am confident that the response and recovery effort is on track. I am reassured by the state government that everything that is able to be done is being done and resources are being applied where required. Mr Northe in particular has worked tirelessly since the fire started and is doing everything in his power to assist his community. I wish the Morwell and district community all the best in the coming days and can assure them that both the state and Commonwealth government will assist them wherever possible.