The fire at Victoria, Australia’s Hazelwood coal mine has burned for nearly a month now and blanketed the nearby town of South Morwell in hazardous smog, but the end seems to be near. Firefighters estimated Thursday that continued firefighting efforts and favorable wind meant the fire would be extinguished within days.
A government advisory last week encouraged children, the elderly, and pregnant women to leave town until air quality improved, and they appear to have listened. Residents have abandoned more than half of the 750 homes in the worst-affected area of the Latrobe valley, as the air quality drops to the same level as smog-choked Beijing. Levels of PM 2.5 particles, the small variety that is most harmful to health, peaked at 565.3 micrograms per cubic meter of air on February 22 in Morwell South, about the same as Beijing’s peak. That’s well into the highest category of pollution, Hazardous, defined as any level over 300 micrograms.
An estimated 1,500 Latrobe Valley residents came to a public meeting and marched to protest the government’s response to the disaster on Sunday. “My eyes are stinging and my throat is killing me,” one resident, Wendy Farmer, told The Guardian. “What is short term? This has been going for three weeks.”
Firefighters brought the blaze under control less than half a kilometer from the power plant that depends on the burning mine for fuel, and supplies a large portion of the state of Victoria’s power. A 2006 fire at the same mine burned for days and cut some of the plant’s power production.
Environmentalists were already calling for the open cut coal mine to be closed in 2006. Not only is the danger of fires and power interruption real, but as Environment Victoria’s executive director Marcus Godinho told The Age, “Hazelwood already produces more global warming pollution per unit of electricity than any power station in the developed world. Fires in their coal pit just add to their record levels of pollution.”