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Hazelwood Mine Fire continues to impact on vulnerable community members

The VCOSS Submission to the 2015 re-opened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry  reports the ongoing concern about the long term physical and psychosocial impacts of the mine fire In Morwell.

Through further consultation with local community and social service organisations, along with consultation with members of the local Aboriginal community, VCOSS has found that Morwell’s entrenched difficulties have been exacerbated since the mine fire and the community continues to be highly distressed. There is significant fear about the long-term consequences for health, and great uncertainty about the potential effects of exposure to the smoke and ash along with concerns about the availability of adequate healthcare services.

VCOSS’ submission found that the mine fire itself has not been the only disruption to the community and health services that seek to support the wellbeing of local residents. Changes to the delivery of human services in Morwell by both the Commonwealth and Victorian Governments, have added more stress and disruption to a system already compromised by mine fire.

Recent research[1] confirms that Morwell is ranked as one of the most disadvantage areas in Victoria, experiencing a complex web of disadvantage and bearing a disproportionately high level of disadvantage within the state. It is also one of the areas that has remained depressed for a long period, demonstrating the persistent, entrenched nature of the disadvantage experienced by this community.

In the VCOSS Submission to the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry and again in our One year on: Morwell and the Hazelwood Mine Fire report, VCOSS stressed that the Hazelwood mine fire was a long term crisis that would have ongoing and pervasive economic and social impacts on this vulnerable community.

As recorded by VCOSS in this and our earlier submissions and reports, the challenges inherent in entrenched disadvantage are well-known to local service providers. Significant service gaps in public housing, drug and alcohol services, dental services, accommodation for people with mental health issues, youth services, child protection, and other areas prevent them from addressing the causes and impacts of disadvantage.

VCOSS has recorded some of the longer-term impacts of the Hazelwood Mine fire as including:

  • Health impacts including respiratory, pregnancy and birth, drug and alcohol use
  • Psychosocial impacts including trauma, mental health issues, family violence and ongoing stress relating to the uncertainty around the long term health impacts of the fire
  • Particular impacts on children and young people
  • Health studies initiated after the fire have not been inclusive for people facing vulnerability as they have not addressed barriers to participation
  • Loss of pride in the community, lack of trust in the rebuilding process, and the need for further community building activities to help the community recover from the fire
  • Ongoing difficulties for community and social services organisations to respond fully to the complex and diverse needs of their clients, such as increased mental health concerns, due to a lack of funding that takes long-term trauma into account
  • Operational challenges for community service organisations that have had to shut down essential services, lost revenue and face ongoing staffing issues caused by the fire

VCOSS’ recommendations in its 2015 submission include the following:

  1. Develop a long-term strategy for Morwell and the broader Latrobe Valley that addresses the causes of vulnerability and disadvantage in the first place, plus specific community-led recovery, supported by all levels of government.
  2. Provide a broader reach for the Health Study that includes targeting vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, including Aboriginal people and those facing transport barriers
  3. Acknowledge and support the unique role that community sector organisations play in the region through filling service gaps and examining better ways to fund services and programs through such emergency events.
  4. Address the specific conditions, concerns, capabilities or needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable communities in the development of future emergency management plans, both in Morwell and the Latrobe Valley and across Victoria.

The Morwell community has suffered from severe social and health disadvantage for many years and the determinants of this are mainly social. Any strategies to improve the health of the community must address these determinants and the solutions to the community’s long term disadvantage needs a serious long term commitment.

[1]Jesuit Social Services & Catholic Social Services Australia, Dropping off the Edge 2015, Persistent communal disadvantage in Australia, 2015  http://www.dote.org.au