"The smoke got thicker and darker and then it seemed to be coming from everywhere, swirling around until it blanketed the entire town . . ."
On 9 February 2014 a fire took hold in Victoria's Hazelwood coal mine next to Morwell and burned for one and a half months. As the air filled with toxic smoke and ash, residents of the Latrobe Valley became ill, afraid – and angry. Up against an unresponsive corporation and an indifferent government, the community banded together, turning tragedy into a political fight.
Tom Doig reveals the decades of decisions that led to the fire, and gives an intimate account of the first moments of the blaze and the dark weeks that followed. The Coal Face is a gripping and immediate report of one of the worst environmental and public health disasters in Australian history.
Tom Doig is an author, PhD candidate and moron. Moron to Moron: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure (2013) is his first book. The Coal Face (2015), about the 2014 Hazelwood coalmine fire, is his second book.
Tom was born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand. He moved to Melbourne ‘for a year’ in 2001 and has been there ever since.
Tom’s non-fiction has been published in The Big Issue, New Matilda, The Lifted Brow, Sleepers Almanac, Voiceworks, The Death Mook and ACF’s Habitat magazine. Tom has posed topless in Maxim magazine. http://makeagif.com/i/MSFV0f
His plays include Survival of the Prettiest, The Badness Hour, Hitlerhoff, One-Arm and Three-Arms in the Swamp and Selling Ice to the Remains of the Eskimos.
Tom has worked as Editor of Voiceworks magazine (2004-6), Co-Director of the National Young Writers’ Festival (2006-7), Associate Producer of the Next Wave Festival (2009-10), and The Guy Who Answers a Phone that Never Rings, Ever for the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority (2009; 2012). He has an MA in Hitler Comedy.
In July 2010, Tom and his best mate Tama Pugsley mountain-biked 1487 kilometres across northern Mongolia from a small town called Mörön to a smaller town also called Mörön. This, unfortunately, is the greatest achievement of his life thus far.
"Mörön to Mörön: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure" is Tom’s first book.
Tom is currently working on his Difficult Second Book: a journalism PhD about the lived experience of climate change in Australia, provisionally title "Hot Cold Headfuck". This will be published in 2016. Maybe.
When I was an industrial officer for a trade union, I used to represent members at the two water companies in the Latrobe Valley. The first time I drove down to the Valley it was shortly after a bushfire had ripped through the place. As I got close to Traralgon I thought I could smell the after effects of the fire, a kind of sickly sweet smell of damp embers hanging in the air. It was only later, on subsequent trips when the fire was a distant memory, that I realised what I had actually been smelling was brown coal being burnt in one of the very many power stations down there. Power stations that provide Victoria with the majority of its electricity.
This is the story of what might still prove to be the worst industrial accident (is something eminently preventable still an ‘accident’?) in Victoria’s history – that is, the Hazelwood Mine fire in 2014. The Hazelwood Power Station has the dubious honour of being the least carbon efficient power station in the OECD. In a spate of neoliberal reforms initiated in the early 1990s the Valley went from being a reasonable rural community in which to live to being decimated by the privatisation of what had been the State Electrical Commission. If you wanted to write a textbook on the social ills of neoliberal policies, the history of towns like Moe and Morwell in the Valley would be hard to beat. However, as this book makes all too clear, privatisation didn’t just run a wrecking ball through these communities, it produced a situation where a fire in one of the mines would be almost inevitable.
Victoria is one of the most bushfire prone areas on the planet. This isn’t really helped by us having Eucalyptus trees all over the place. Stacked full of oil, they generally go up like ‘a bomb’ when the catch fire, as this book explains. So, having an open cut mine in the middle of this state, surrounded by trees planted, ironically enough, by the water board, well, summer time was bound to come eventually, and the living was unlikely to be all that easy…
Fortunately, the privatisation of these facilities had meant the companies that took over from the state provider had an obsessive focus on safety, no matter what the cost. Okay, you can stop laughing now. The mine owners took the expensive sprinkler systems out of the mine – not much point wasting money on such fripperies. The other problems were all compounded by the fact that the mine is within spitting distance from the town of Morwell. So, when the mine caught fire it wasn’t long before you could smell the smoke all over the Valley, but particularly in Morwell.
You know how if you are a miner you are meant to bring a cannery with you into a mine and when that dies it is time for you to get out? Well, shortly after the fire started people’s chickens started dying.
Then someone’s dog sort of exploded. It started bleeding from its paws and then pretty much from everywhere else. A vet believed someone had doused it in petrol. Soon humans were also being affected. People started implementing their asthma plans, then people who didn’t have asthma started having to implement asthma plans too. People started dying too, in numbers that were much higher than normal. All the while the government and the company that runs the plant / mine were saying everything was just fine.
This is a book that shows not only how un-fine things were, but also how people living in the area were able to mobilise to respond and finally to force governments to take seriously the horrific effects of this fire. It shows how private companies respond when things go wrong – essentially, they go into shut down mode and media damage control.
This is a very short book – Penguin seem to have a lot of these out at the moment and the couple I’ve read have been a delight. This one is particularly good, if, however, not all that great for helping to maintain blood pressure.
I also think this might be the only time I’ve ever ‘read’ the Australian idiomatic expression I’ve heard all my life, ‘flat-knacker’. It means to work very hard, but, having said that, I’m not quite sure why it means that. Knackers are testicles, so I can’t really tell you why them being flat might mean you are working hard. Also, to be knackered means to be exhausted – the reference being to ‘the knackers-yard’, that is, where old, worn out horses are sent, but I can’t make ‘flat’ work here either, and would bet a knacker on the knacker in flat-knacker referring to testicles rather than horses. And that is often the way with idioms – you know exactly what they mean right up until you need to explain them.
These short Penguin books pack quite a punch. This was a very interesting and confronting read about the Hazelwood coal mine fire in Morewell, which burned for over a month and caused many of the residents in the area to become very ill and some even died as a result of the toxins in the area. It is perhaps one of Victoria's biggest natural disasters along with the Black Saturday fires of 2009. The big difference however is that it is the belief of many experts that this disaster could have been avoided. Much was done to try and cover this up at the expense of many local people who suffered greatly. If it wasn't for the voices and hard work of some of these locals to get the truth out we may never have known the extent and destruction of this huge, catastrophic event.
I enjoyed this a lot. The first half is an account of the fire itself and the political and economic background of privatisation and short-sighted cost-cutting decisions that opened Hazelwood up to a 45 day fire. The second half is more like Community Organising: A Case Study and follows the ways a small, dedicated group of Morwell residents organised to hold the government and private operators to account. That all sounds pretty dry but Tom's writing style is a pleasure - an easy read and understated but compelling prose. It's also only a hundred pages which is approximately my ideal book length. Totally recommended.
I thought this would have been boring but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy this was to read. It was engaging and the nitiy grity facts about the Hazelwood mine was written in a way that wasn't dry which I thought would be impossible.
The third part about how the community of Morwell rallied together to get more recognition and assistance from the government was really heart warming and made me proud to live in the Latrobe Valley.
It's a really weird but satisfying feeling when you read not only about places that you know, but events that you've lived through.
My only criticism is that Doig was very vague about what sources he got his information from and that can bring the reliability of the information into question. I'm sure he put a lot of effort into his research but I feel that the book would have benefited immensely if footnotes and a references list at the back were included, it would have given the book a more academic feel and give the evidence presented more weight.
All in all this was a great, quick read and worth every cent.
The Coal Face is a remarkable account of how "possibly the worst incident of environmental pollution" in Victoria's history - was entirely preventable - and worse, given the clusterfuck of events outlined by Doig, was entirely predictable.
While much of the book is dedicated to mapping out the conditions and decision making that lead to the devastating coal mine fire - Doig also manages to weave in intimate personal reports while exploring the public health consequences and subsequent political battles of the fire. It makes for surprisingly compelling reading.
This is a Penguin Special on the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire. The brown coal mine in Victoria's east burned, out of control, for 45 days, billowing toxic smoke and ash. Here the author summarises the events over decades that led to the fire and shares the local communities' perspective: what they witnessed, their fight for assistance and attention, and the significant health consequences. It is an enthralling and shocking read. I had several literal jaw-dropping moments.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is short and an easy read. People need to be aware of how both industry and government failed, and be reminded just how important preventative measures, planning and enforcement activities are. The story of how the small town of Morwell was affected by this huge industrial disaster, in our modern era, deserves attention.