By Sally Whyte
This is the view of the Hazelwood mine and power station from the side of the Princes Freeway. The closest houses are less than ten metres behind where I was when I took this photo. Most people in the city don’t really consider where electricity comes from – we flick a switch and the lights turn on, and we don’t think any further. But for people in Morwell, there is a constant reminder of where power comes from.
Since February 9, it’s been impossible to forget about the mine, as it billowed smoke and ash towards the 14,000 residents of Morwell. Beginning as a deliberately lit bushfire, the flames made their way to the open-cut coal mine, where the fire smouldered for weeks.
By the time we got to Morwell, it had been 5 weeks since the fire started in the Hazelwood mine. It was meant to be a good day, but we could smell the smoke, and felt it in our noses and throats. The residents we interviewed told us that the only breaks from the smoke and ash have come from leaving the Latrobe Valley all together. The smoke and ash had even penetrated people’s homes. Deb Hollis told us that it was difficult to explain what was going on to her son who said that “his house hurt him”.
I couldn’t imagine having no safe space, no respite from the smoke, it would wear down your mental health and your physical health as well. The headlines that reached Melbourne always said that residents south of Commercial Road were most at risk, but we spoke to so many people on the north side of town who were feeling the effects of the smoke just as badly as those in the south.
The residents of Morwell weren’t just weary of the smoke, they were weary of the media. Brandishing a microphone was basically like declaring you had the plague. We spoke to people at their businesses and their homes, and they looked at us suspiciously as we talked about telling their stories. People were especially suspicious on Wallace Street, the closest street to the mine – they haven’t had to deal with just smoke, the ash sits in piles in their sheds and backyards. There was a lot of disillusionment in every conversation – with the government, with the mine management and with the media. They felt that no one was really taking them seriously and that all the ‘solutions’ offered by the authorities weren’t going to solve anything at all. By the time we got to Morwell, we were told “We’ve spoken to the newspaper, to the radio and nothing ever comes of it!”
Even though we were hearing so many negative stories, I left the day with a really positive feeling. Some locals have started Facebook groups to share information and rally for change, they’ve made friends they didn’t have before and started the search for empowerment. Many people have connected with their neighbours and helped them through the tough times.
I also got this photo of contributor Emma Koehn crawling through a fence, so how can you not smile?
You can listen to more stories from Morwell here.