Sunday, 2 August 2015


Penguin, 2015, 121 pages (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon 

Coal burns, so it is no surprise that coalmines can catch fire in a spectacular, Hades kind of way.  The massive, open-cut coalmine next to Hazelwood Power Station in Morwell, Victoria, says the writer, Tom Doig, in The Coal Face, has around three hundred spot fires every year, punctuated by bigger blazes lasting days.

In 2014, on the extreme fire risk weekend of February 8th-9th, the mine caught dramatically alight (from either bushfires, or a pre-existing spot fire) and burned out of control for 45 days. The residents of Morwell, and the broader Latrobe Valley, breathed choking smoke and harmful chemicals in what was Victoria’s worst ever industrial disaster.  It had, however, been preventable, thus turning a public health emergency  into a corporate crime.

With Hazelwood’s shrinking coal reserves becoming increasingly uneconomic to mine, thus slating the mine and power plant for future closure, millions of dollars of fire-suppressant sprinklers and steel water pipes had been removed and sold for scrap.  Fire-preventing rehabilitation and in-fill of the worked-out but still coal-laden seams had not been done.  There had been no clearing of firebreaks.  All this saved money for the mine’s French multinational owner, GDF Suez, the largest power company in the world with annual profits of over $100 billion.

GDF Suez didn’t get this big by being ethical.  All the water and fire-fighting defences at Hazelwood had been concentrated on protecting the operational area of the mine and the power plant, not on protecting the community.  These priorities proved highly profitable – whilst 90% of electricity production was lost for the first 24 hours, it was money-making “business as usual” for the next 44 days of the fire.

For the people of the Latrobe Valley, however, it meant a continual chemical soup of microscopic particulate matter, noxious gases, toxic heavy metals, and carcinogens and mutagens. “Already home to some of the least healthy people in Victoria” from the background air pollution from coal mining, many of the region’s residents were pushed closer to, and some over, the mortality edge with at least eleven immediate probable deaths and widespread short and long-term serious morbidity.

They weren’t content, however, to be just victims.  They organised, attracting over a thousand residents to Morwell’s “first ever mass community protest”, led, often enough, by people discovering their political voice for the very first time.  They ran a candidate in the state election, taking 11% of the vote away from the government incumbent and forcing the incoming Labor Premier to promise and deliver on a thorough scientific investigation of the fire’s health impact.

With the fire still smouldering and a future public health tragedy slowly brewing, with employees still banned from speaking out under threat of dismissal and a firefighting cost to the Victorian taxpayer of $32 million, Doig’s little book shows that, once again, coal has proven to be good, not for humanity, but only for corporate wealth and power.

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