April 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Where there’s smoke

By Craig Sherborne
Where there’s smoke
How the Morwell coal mine fire has made unlikely allies

Someone starts a bushfire at Morwell in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley: dips toilet rolls in kerosene (say the locals), lights them and throws them into the forest for his perverse jollies. It blows across firebreaks and bitumen near the Hazelwood open-cut coal mine. Ash drifts down into the mine and sets a blaze going, a 4-kilometre orange-black coal wall of pulsing flame. Day disappears in the smoke. Ash settles on the town like powdery gravel. It makes you gag and your eyes burn. Your house, inside and out, becomes covered in the stuff. The Environment Protection Authority’s air-quality data reading goes off the scale. One hundred and fifty is considered bad. In Morwell South, where the mine is, the reading reaches 1942. Levels of tiny particles called PM2.5 that get deep into your lungs are 19 times over the healthy limit.

The mine began burning on 9 February, and it took a month before authorities could control it. It’s still smoking and will continue to do so indefinitely. By 17 February, Tineke Stratford couldn’t take it anymore. She and her husband, John, live 400 metres from the mine. The filthy air set off her asthma. She’s a swimming coach with 200 children on her books. She shut down the business and left town. The indoor pool at the back of her home wore a thick skin of ash. “Ash was falling on the kids,” she says. “This kind of thing was never meant to happen. The part of the mine the fire was in hadn’t been mined for 30 years. It was meant to have been rehabilitated: clay and then topsoil over that and then grass. That didn’t happen. We were worried the fire would just keep coming and go right under our house.”

John Stratford laboured in Morwell’s coal industry for 24 years. He’s a big man with cracked worker hands that he clenches as if ready for fighting. “Mate, they’re going to blame some dumb-nut arsonist, but they had to be prepared for this and they bloody weren’t.”

He points to the woman kneeling to inspect the ash grit at his door. It’s the incoming CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Kelly O’Shanassy. She’s the former head of Environment Victoria, who now has one of Australia’s most public conservation roles. For 16 years, her predecessor, Don Henry, was the cheerful academic type you saw on TV speaking with kindly patience on matters from climate change to whale killing, a sort of science educator at large. O’Shanassy, a river scientist by training and an expert in environmental sustainability, knows she has to be that, too. But she also wants this: to try to take the ideological divide out of environmentalism. The bitter stand-offs between left and right. She views the city–country divide as pointless and time-wasting, particularly where climate change is concerned. So when John Stratford shakes his head and says, “Never thought a bloke like me would get in bed with the tree-huggers, but I am, and I’ve cut down more bloody trees than I could ever count,” it’s what she wants to hear.

“You can’t rely on taking reasoned scientific argument to governments anymore, because ideology and vested interests get in their way,” O’Shanassy says.

Says Stratford, “This fire’s brought people together. People at the opposite ends of things. It’s scary here, mate. The problems with the mine, it’s big shit.”

O’Shanassy, 43, grew up around southern Victoria. Her father was a cop, her mother a primary school teacher. At home, there was little sympathy for her environmental values. Her mother threw her out of the house at one stage after an argument over climate change. “Eventually I persuaded her on the issue. I even had her handing out fliers at a rally,” she says.

“I certainly am not one of the so-called ‘inner-city elites’ of environmentalism. My background is living in public housing and small towns. The great thing about that is I can come home and test my views on people who are traditionally sceptical about these issues. I learnt that you’ve got to relate things back to people’s lives and jobs.

“You’ve got to get them to listen by [making a] strong argument around the economy. Climate change as an economic problem. That’s why my heart goes out to the people of Morwell. They’ve borne the brunt of the effects of brown coal mining for the benefit of generating energy for Melbourne.”

The Hazelwood mine has produced a billion tonnes of coal in the past 50 years. Victoria’s Coalition government wants to increase coal mining in the valley dramatically to produce 13 billion tonnes, turning vast tracts of farm land into more Hazelwoods. Plans for a transition away from brown coal mining and the creation of a new economic model for the region have been shelved. The previous Labor government established a strategy to reduce the state’s carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2020. That target has been scrapped.

“You can’t rely on taking reasoned scientific argument to governments anymore, because ideology and vested interests get in their way,” O’Shanassy says.

The Coalition’s attitude towards renewable energy is another case in point. Anyone living within 2 kilometres of a proposed wind farm can veto its construction, and they commonly do because of highly dubious claims that the turbines are bad for your health. Wind farms are also not allowed to be built within 5 kilometres of 21 regional centres.

 “I can’t understand how the government can oppose wind farms when all the evidence is that it’s coal that’s bad for your health, not wind farms,” O’Shanassy says. “Look here in Morwell. You can’t have a wind farm within 5 kilometres of this place, but you can have a brown coal mine that has been on fire for a month within 400 metres of a row of houses.”

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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