IT’S no wonder that State Health Officer Dr Rosemary Lester recommended last Friday morning that vulnerable residents of Morwell South consider leaving the area in the face of worsening air quality conditions.
And some of them have been heading this way.
By 4pm last Friday the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) was recording dangerous air quality conditions in the area at ‘1151’, where anything over 150 is considered ‘very poor’.
Visibility, as a result of smoke from the Hazelwood coal mine fire, which has been burning for almost a month, was also ‘very poor’ and there was a high level of coal, dust and toxic particles in the air with a reading of 193ug/m3.
By comparison, at the same time the EPA was measuring the air quality in the industrial west of Melbourne at 24, in the middle of the ‘very good’ band.
It’s not surprising then that more than 1000 people would attend a public meeting in the town last Sunday, many of them wearing face masks, looking for answers.
“The children of Morwell are sick. The adults of Morwell are sick,” one resident said at the meeting.
“It has now become normal in Morwell to be suffering from smoke inhalation.”
By Monday morning this week, the Air Quality Index in Morwell South was down to 55 or ‘good’ with light northerly winds blowing a reduced level of smoke away from the town but Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley has warned that fire activity in the mine could increase today (Tuesday) with higher winds and temperatures expected to cause problems for fire fighters.
Open for respite
Meanwhile, residents of the town are being offered an opportunity to take respite accommodation for up to a week in the South Gippsland and Bass Coast areas under a time out program being administered locally by Destination Gippsland.
CEO of Destination Gippsland, Terry Robinson, was quick to respond to a call by the Premier Denis Napthine last Thursday for holiday home owners to offer their properties, calling a meeting with tourism and shire representatives and having a program in place by Friday morning.
“Our role is to coordinate the tourism industry response and to match respite accommodation with any requests we receive,” Mr Robinson said last Friday.
“We’re working with DHS, the local councils, tourism providers and Tourism Victoria and we’ve had a pleasing response.”
By the end of the day on Friday, no requests for respite accommodation had been made but Mr Robinson was pleased to say that a Destination Gippsland program was now in a position to respond.
“At the moment we are only dealing with accommodation already registered with the Visitor Information Centre network; which would include caravan parks, motels and private holiday homes.”
Mr Robinson said there had been no talk of funding for the program but Destination Gippsland would be following up with the State Government about the availability of a suitable grant.
Accommodation within a two-hour radius of Morwell is considered to be of interest but properties in South Gippsland and Bass Coast are likely to be in most demand as being closer to the Morwell South area.
Although there had only been a few inquiries prior to last weekend, anecdotal evidence was that local caravan parks and accommodation was quite busy last weekend, boosted by the good weather and possibly by casual visitors from the Latrobe Valley.
Local shire’s help
Neighbouring municipalities have also been standing ready to respond with Baw Baw Shire’s emergency management personnel taking over operation of the relief centre in Traralgon over the weekend and South Gippsland set to do likewise this week.
“We’ve got a standing agreement that we support our neighbours at times of emergency and we were to send a team over to management the Traralgon relief centre from Monday to Thursday this week, but we’ve just been advised we don’t have to go,” Christian Stefani of South Gippsland Shire.
“Apparently the centre hasn’t been getting a lot of use and they have decided to discontinue it for now.
“We’re on standby essentially now but we’re ready to help in any way we can.
“Our tourism operators were busy at the weekend but I’m not sure how much of that was the good weather or people taking a break from Morwell.”
In other response activities locally, groups of school children from the Morwell area visited the beach at Inverloch last week.
10 things you might not have known about… Morwell’s smoke crisis
1. During interviews mid-week last week, Gippsland South MLA and Deputy Premier Peter Ryan left open the option that the State’s Chief Health Officer would decide to evacuate at least some at-risk Morwell residents and that’s what happened last Friday with Dr Rosemary Lester issuing an advisory to vulnerable residents of Morwell South. Many say the government has not gone far enough.
2. Local holiday home owners can cool their jets. Despite the calls from the Premier Denis Napthine last week for holiday home owners and accommodation providers to offer the use of their homes as a refuge for those seeking to flee smoke and ash from the Hazelwood Coal Mine fire, it’s only those already registered with their Visitor Information Centres (VICs) who may be approached at this stage.
3. Destination Gippsland, working in conjunction with local Visitor Information Centres, the shires, DHS and Tourism Victoria, has put up its hand to help with calls for respite accommodation and say the response so far from local holiday home owners “has been positive”.
4. If you still want to offer your home for respite accommodation you might call one of the Visitor Information Centres at Wonthaggi 1300 854 334, Cowes/Newhaven 1300 366 422, Inverloch 1300 762 433 or Prom Country/South Gippsland 1800 630 704.
5. There’s no truth in the rumour that the Bass Coast Shire Council has told refugees from Morwell that they aren’t allowed to bring their dogs when coming for respite accommodation in Inverloch!
6. Smoke and particle density in the Latrobe Valley is being monitored hourly by the EPA with the latest figures being released on the EPA website at: http://www.epa.vic.gov.au/aq-latrobe-valley-mine-fire/current-air-quality Last week, the concentration of particles, i.e. the number of micrograms of a substance per cubic metre of air, exceeded 300ug/m3 in the Morwell South area, with air quality rated at ‘very poor’ throughout the testing period, hitting a high of 1151 on Friday where anything over 150 is rated ‘very poor’.
7. Local people visiting or working in the Latrobe Valley last week have made reports of extremely poor air quality and the presence of thick smoke especially in the area of the freeway where it runs past the Hazelwood/Morwell open-cut coal mine area.
8. Fire authorities say it will still be weeks before the smoke from the Hazelwood Coal Mine fire is reduced. Smoke drift could impact South Gippsland in the next few days.
9. Latrobe Valley businesses are reporting a significant reduction in trade as a result of the smoke and Australia Post last week stopped household deliveries of mail due to the poor air quality. Impact data is being collected for a possible class action against the State Government and GDZ Suez, owners of the Hazelwood Power Station and mine.
10. The cost of cleaning up of Morwell, and other affected parts of the Latrobe Valley, is expected to run into many millions of dollars but Deputy Premier Ryan has already committed the government to paying for the cost of returning towns, streets, houses and businesses to their former condition.