Hazelwood mine fire: lessons in health crisis management

By Stephen Easton

Friday September 5, 2014

Over the 45 days it burned, the Hazelwood mine fire blanketed neighbouring Morwell with smoke and ash. The effects on the health of nearby residents are likely to be felt for decades to come.

The response to this crisis was led by the Victorian Department of Health, which worked with the state Environmental Protection Agency to monitor air quality and inform Morwell residents of the danger, as well as providing emergency healthcare with support from the Victorian Department of Human Services.

The board of inquiry commended the EPA for its commitment to scientific rigour in handling a vast quantity of complex air quality data in a short period of time. It also noted the resourcefulness of its staff in overcoming equipment difficulties and scrambling to find the gear they needed wherever they could.

The EPA was also praised for the air monitoring it performed at the local Bowling Club starting on February 20 — 11 days after the fire started — and for seeking independent peer reviews of its response to the Hazelwood mine fire. However, the board reports:

“… the State Control Centre’s initial request for the EPA’s support and advice in responding to the Hazelwood mine fire came too late and the EPA was ill-equipped to respond rapidly.

“The use of low cost, highly mobile equipment could have allowed monitoring to have commenced earlier in the critical period of the first week when the highest air pollution concentrations were likely to have affected the community.”

The Department of Health’s response to air quality issues was “overly reliant on validated air data when indicative air data would have been sufficient”, according to the inquiry board, and health advisories generated under its Bushfire Smoke Protocol were “generic and repetitive” and did not provide the community with useful, practical information.

The inquiry also praised Health and the EPA for developing joint protocols for carbon monoxide and PM2.5 — tiny particles up to 2.5 micrometres across — but points out that not having them in place beforehand left the community vulnerable:

“After 25 February 2014, levels of PM2.5 started to increase again, which prompted the Chief Health Officer to advise on 28 February 2014 that vulnerable groups … temporarily relocate from the area south of Commercial Road in Morwell. Based on the information provided, the Board considers that this temporary relocation advice was provided too late. Further, the basis for limiting the advice to those in vulnerable groups living south of Commercial Road was poorly explained and was perceived by the community as arbitrary and divisive.”

The lack of co-ordination between the EPA, Country Fire Authority and Department of Health due to inadequate protocols was also criticised:

“On 15 February 2014, elevated carbon monoxide readings motivated the CFA to issue a ‘Watch and Act’ alert warning residents close to the Hazelwood mine to shelter indoors immediately and close all windows, doors and vents. The Department of Health was not involved in the decision to send the alert and did not consider it necessary or helpful.

“It also conflicted with health advice the Department was providing to the community at that time.

“Worrying carbon monoxide levels continued to be detected on 16 February 2014. The Department of Health considered these detections to be ‘spot readings’ and not sufficiently reliable to inform public health advice. The Department of Health therefore decided not to issue any warnings or advice to the community. Yet if these readings were averaged over a four hour period they were high enough to warrant at least a ‘Watch and Act’ alert. The Board was informed that no adverse health effects from community exposure to carbon monoxide were detected on or after 16 February 2014.”

Worryingly, the inquiry also uncovered an inconsistency in the levels of carbon monoxide considered safe for firefighters and the general community:

“… 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. This inconsistency in the protocols was not satisfactorily explained to the Board and remains of concern.”

‘Eligibility confusion and poor communication’

Special tailored relief payments were devised by the Department of Human Services for residents who needed to relocate but, according to the inquiry, confusion about eligibility requirements and poor communication caused distress and divided the community, hampering its recovery.

With a higher-than-average incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, along with a large number of low-income households and residents with disabilities, the fire “added further insult to an already vulnerable community”, the board concluded.

The health department is praised in the report for commissioning public health researchers to conduct a rapid health risk assessment a few weeks into the fire to look at short-term health effects. But the inquiry also points out that the study was not adjusted for the poorer health of Morwell residents. The inquiry determined that:

“… the utility of the Rapid Health Risk Assessment would have been enhanced had the results been available earlier to inform the Department of Health’s decision-making. It also would have been beneficial to provide the Rapid Health Risk Assessment findings to the community to address their request for more information about the potential adverse health effects of the exposure to smoke and ash.”

The Department of Health’s development of a health assessment centre was commended in the inquiry for providing the community with an additional source of health information, guidance and reassurance. Board members advise:

“Although, the effectiveness of the centre would have been enhanced if local general practitioners had visited the centre to demonstrate their support and to reassure the community that appropriate measures were in hand.”

The lessons learnt at Hazelwood will reverberate through Victoria for many years to come and it appears that Morwell residents will not be left to suffer in silence. Significantly, the Department of Health has agreed to fund a long-term health study in Morwell for at least the next 20 years, overseen by an independent board that includes local community representatives — a decision for which there are few precedents “that would [not] have been taken lightly”, as the board notes.

Another silver lining in the dark cloud of poisonous smoke is that the inquiry has shone a light on the pre-existing health needs of Morwell, which might lead to improved services in future:

“There is a strong case for the health of the population of the Latrobe Valley to be substantially improved. Based on current health status information, this was justified before the Hazelwood mine fire and is even more necessary now. In the view of the Board, consideration ought to be given to potential avenues to achieve better outcomes for the region, such as the creation of a health conservation zone and the appointment of an independent health advocate.”

More at The Mandarin: Hazelwood mine fire a lesson to collaborate and communicate

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