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Keep socialist blog En Passant going - donate now
If you want to keep a blog that makes the arguments every day against the ravages of capitalism going and keeps alive the flame of democracy and community, make a donation to help cover my costs. And of course keep reading the blog. To donate click here. Keep socialist blog En Passant going. More... (4)

Sprouting sh*t for almost nothing
You can prove my 2 ex-comrades wrong by donating to my blog En Passant at BSB: 062914 Account: 1067 5257, the Commonwealth Bank in Tuggeranong, ACT. More... (12)

My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. http://sharonfirebrace.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/18-2-14-john-passant-aust-national-university-g20-meeting-age-of-enttilement-engineers-attack-of-austerity-hardship-on-civilians.mp3 (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. http://sharonfirebrace.com/2014/02/11/john-passant-aust-national-university-canberra-2/ (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. http://sharonfirebrace.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/4-2-14-john-passant-aust-national-university-canberra-end-of-the-age-of-entitlement-for-the-needy-but-pandering-to-the-lusts-of-the-greedy.mp3 (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole
(0)

Sick kids and paying upfront

(0)

Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. http://sharonfirebrace.com/2013/12/03/john-passant-australian-national-university-8/ (0)

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The fire crisis in the Latrobe Valley

On Sunday Red Flag – Socialist Alternative’s fortnightly newspaper – published the article below on the unfolding disaster in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. The response was so overwhelming that it crashed their website. While they wait to establish themselves on a new server, they published this important article in full on Facebook and I have re-published it.

LATROBE VALLEY FIRE CRISIS: ‘This is no natural disaster’

Naomi Farmer reports on a Victorian community abandoned by authorities in the face of a public health disaster.

A public health disaster is unfolding in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. The brown coal mine connected to Hazelwood power station has been burning since 9 February, and fire authorities are at a loss as to how to put it out.

The fire is six kilometres across, a kilometre down and at least two feet into the coal face.

The area is blanketed by thick smoke. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index readings have shattered records. A reading above 150 is considered “very poor”; above 200 indicates that the air pollution is “hazardous”. Morwell, which is next to the mine, has had a number of readings above 500. On 21 February, the reading reached 1,300.

“Avoid prolonged or heavy physical activity, get inside [and] bunker down”, urged the EPA’s Tanya O’Shea. The following day Morwell South registered 1,997.

There have been no readings in Churchill, Newborough, Moe or any of the other smaller towns in the area.

My dad Brett is a miner at Hazelwood. Despite the dangerously polluted air, he and his colleagues are still being sent down to dig coal. Twice now he has emerged with elevated and dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in his blood.

The second time he had to be rushed to hospital. “I was digging coal from way over the other side of the open cut and I thought, ‘There is no drama here, the wind is blowing pretty strong.’ I only went outside for half an hour to check the oil levels and then the next thing you know I am going to hospital”, he said.

Ambulance services, the hospital and local GPs have all reported an increase in patients due to respiratory problems. Speak to anyone in the Valley and they will tell you that people are tired, headachey and sick.

Government authorities have recommended that people leave the area if they can, especially if they have pre-existing respiratory problems.

But leaving is not feasible for many people. Single mum Casie Konnodouras says of her 5-year-old son Declan, “He has had the worst breathing. He didn’t eat for two days because his throat was so sore. It’s crazy. Dad works at the tip, he’s come home every night and used Mum’s ventolin. He’s not an asthmatic; he’s just been breathing so bad.”

I ask her if she has considered moving out until the fire stops. “To where?” she responds.

Emily Jones is from Moe but works in Morwell. “It is revolting. I’ve had a headache for days. The air is thick with smoke and ash. People I know are getting sick from being exposed to it. I’m home now but can still taste it. I hope they can get it resolved soon as I worry about the long term health effects”, she says.

Particularly vulnerable are the elderly. Lyn Zalesiak is a personal care assistant at Morwell aged care facility Heritage Manor. “They had to put towels around all the doors and the windows [and] switch off the air conditioning”, she says. “It’s hot in there at the best of times; with no air conditioning it was bad.”

It was avoidable

This disaster is not “natural”. The section of the mine currently burning has not been used for years. It should have been capped with clay to prevent fires.

But the current owner of Hazelwood, GDF Suez, decided against capping after it acquired the operation in 2010. It was considered too expensive. GDF Suez is the largest independent utility company in the world, with an annual revenue of 84 billion euros. And Hazelwood is a very profitable plant. At times it produces millions of dollars worth of power per day.

The neglect is systematic. It is in part a product of the power industry’s privatisation two decades ago and the subsequent drive to increase profits at the expense of safety.

The sprinkler system was removed and sold as scrap metal. All of the experienced firefighters have lost their jobs and less experienced people have replaced them. Cost-cutting has seen maintenance staff become responsible for their own training. All of these measures increased the risk of disaster.

CFMEU Mining and Energy Division president Luke Van Der Meulen explains: “In the 1990s the fire protection of that part of the mine was scrapped, leaving a vast area totally exposed to this fire.

“This area should have been rehabilitated years ago and the exposed coal should have been covered in earth. Until this was done the fire systems should have remained in place and functional. The bodies responsible to ensure the community was adequately protected are I believe the Department of Primary Industry, the Fire Department and WorkSafe.

“These departments and successive governments have failed in their duty to the Latrobe Valley and Victorian community. Negligence or asleep at the wheel are the terms I believe that apply.”

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) says that using too much water to extinguish the fire could “damage the mine’s infrastructure”. It is “searching the world for solutions”.

But Peter Marshall, president of the United Firefighters Union, says that the Napthine government’s $60 million in cuts and recruitment freeze has had an impact. “There is no doubt the extra 342 firefighters, equipment and fire stations would have made a significant difference to the resources available to fight the fire.”

In the meantime, 200,000 people’s health is being sacrificed to keep the power – and the profits – flowing.

The company and the authorities have attempted to stop evidence of this disaster getting out. When my Dad took me to see the fire everyone was saying the smoke wasn’t as bad as it had been. It was still an incredible billow of grey smog – strong enough to hurt my eyes and my throat as soon as I stepped out of the car.

When I took a few photos a security guard quickly tried to stop me. He told us “You’re not allowed to take photos. The police told us that if anyone around here is taking photos, then give the police their rego and they will take care of it.”

Within five minutes, three police cars and three security cars had arrived to take our IDs and escort us out the area – they even followed us down the highway to make sure we left.

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Comments

Comment from Siobhan
Time February 25, 2014 at 2:17 pm

I am totally appalled at this situation.
Every day more and more information is published warning of the incredible damage we are doing to our Planet – our only home . It is inconceivable to me that Big Business and Politicians allow this to continue.
And of course the real reason is money (GREED).
We must protect initially the local inhabitants, and stop this fire.
Then we need to think of the wider community.
COAL SHOULD STAY IN THE GROUND.
The World will be uninhabitable within a generation if we continue to damage the Planet as we are doing now.

STOP THIS INSANITY !!!

Comment from RussellW
Time February 27, 2014 at 6:24 pm

The fire is a monument to privatisation, one of my relatives is in the CFA and was a member of some of the first strike teams sent to fight the fire. The deterioration in fire safety standards since the time of the SEC was obvious, particularly the lack of adequate firebreaks. I heard a claim on ABC 774 that some of the installed firefighting systems had been removed after privatisation to improve “efficiency”.