Morwell residents accuse Victorian Health Department of Hazelwood fire cover-up

 Night shot of burning coal at Hazelwood mine

Victoria’s Health Department has been accused of covering up the health risks associated with the Hazelwood mine fire by Morwell residents.

The inquiry into the fire reopened on Tuesday, and was told health officials asked for the rewording of a Melbourne University report which found it was plausible to link the fire with a higher death rate.

The coal mine fire burnt for 45 days last year, choking the nearby town of Morwell with thick, foul-smelling smoke and prompting authorities to urge vulnerable people to relocate.

The department had asked the university to review data on deaths in the Latrobe Valley, as well as the work of Professor Adrian Barnett, who last year published analysis showing there was a high probability 11 deaths in the Latrobe Valley had been caused by the fire.

In emails shown to the inquiry, the department made recommendations on the wording and content of the review to the university’s Doctor Louisa Flander before it was published.

In one exchange the department’s senior medical advisor Doctor Danny Csutoros wrote:

“Is it possible the conclusion could be drawn instead that the data presented do not suggest strong evidence for the author’s hypothesis that the fire had an effect on mortality?”

“Many thanks for these useful comments. We will incorporate all the suggestions,” Dr Flander replied.

Department executive Linda Christine told the inquiry she did not know if those changes weakened the final report.

Dr Flander is expected to give evidence at the inquiry on Wednesday.

Ms Christine was also questioned by inquiry board member Professor John Catford about the level of engagement the department had with the Morwell community.

Professor Catford was particularly interested in why community group Voices of the Valley had to fundraise $550 to pay for data from the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages, when the Health Department already had that information.

Ms Christine told the inquiry it was better if the community got that information directly from the source.

Voices of the Valley ‘lost faith’ in Health Department

Earlier in the day, Ron Ipsen from Voices of the Valley told the inquiry the community lost faith in the Health Department during the inquiry.

He said the community thought of the department as being like cartoon character Homer Simpson who repeatedly uses the phrase “D’Oh”, when he has done something stupid or wrong.

The inquiry finished its first day with evidence from Monash University’s Professor Michael Abramson, who is leading a long-term health study into the possible impacts of the mine fire.

He told the inquiry he was keen to protect the independence of that study, which was being funded by the Victorian Government.

He said Monash University had kept the right, under its contract with the Government, to publish the study’s results.