The Hazelwood open-cut coal mine in eastern Victoria continues to burn more than 40 days after fire first engulfed the pit.

The Country Fire Authority on 21 March announced that the northern batters [the incline section of the mine walls] are now safe because the surface flames have been extinguished. They hope to have the southern batters and the mine floor under control in a short period of time.

However, the extent of underground fires, known as “hot spots”, is still unclear. The CFA has handed responsibility for managing the northern batters to GDF Suez, the company whose practices allowed the fire to begin. The CFA plans to hand over management of the southern fire to the company in the coming days.

All is not calm at the power plant. Workers report that that GDF Suez has threatened to sue anyone who slanders the company in relation to the handling of the disaster – which has resulted in the adjacent town of Morwell being covered in smoke, ash and extremely elevated levels of pollutants.

Residents have suffered severe respiratory complaints and there is uncertainty about the long term health consequences of the immense pollution from the fire.

According to a CFA volunteer, who agreed to speak with Red Flag anonymously, CFA command also has told its firefighters not speak to the media about what has transpired at the mine.

“The impression being given is that the fire is out [but] it’s not ... There are still hot spots along the northern, central and southern fires, there is still an untold amount of work required”, he said.

Understandably, people are concerned about authority for the fires being handed back to the company.

“The area that they are currently mining was well defended, you couldn’t fault them on how much gear they had set up to prevent fires from starting in the western end of the mine, where they working, where they’re getting the coal from”, said Red Flag’s CFA source.

“In the east, along with the north, the south and the centre, where they’re not mining any more ... there was nothing. Nothing had been done; bugger all. In the areas that they defended and that had the [fire prevention] gear set up there wasn’t a problem. The areas that they pulled the gear out of, there were problems.”

Disused areas of a mine are supposed to be rehabilitated and protected from the threat of a fire taking hold. “You either keep the gear there or you cap the coal seam with a layer of clay or soil so it’s not gonna catch fire, so a fire can run over the top of it, so you can just fight the fire that you’ve got – not a coal fire. But what [the company] did was they left the coal steam open and had no fire preparation ready.”

Despite this negligence, the extent of the disaster has been downplayed. The health of the site workers and the local residents has been endangered so that the world’s largest independent utility company can continue business as usual – making millions of dollars from the coal of Hazelwood Power Station.

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