Victorian Health department accused of Morwell coal fire cover-up

Residents of the Victorian town of Morwell have accused the state Department of Health of covering up the health impacts of the Hazelwood mine fire.

An inquiry was reopened on Tuesday into the fire that blanketed the town of Morwell with coal smoke for 45 days last year.

The inquiry heard that Victorian health officials asked for a Melbourne University report to be reworded where it found there was a plausible link between the coal fire and higher mortality in Morwell.

ABC reported that Melbourne University was originally commissioned by the department to review data on deaths in the Latrobe Valley, including work by Professor Adrian Barnett who found that there may have been 11 deaths caused by the fire.

Emails showed to the inquiry revealed senior medical advisor Dr Danny Csutoros asked if it would be possible to draw a different conclusion so that data presented did not “suggest strong evidence for the author's hypothesis that the fire had an effect on mortality”.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Peter Rozen said Melbourne University researcher Dr Louisa Flander was “very keen” to adopt suggestions about the wording of the report and its conclusion.

“It would appear Dr Flander very promptly responded to very detailed comments in a manner that said she was prepared to change them without detailed consideration,” Rozen said.

Detailed suggestions from the department resulted in changes to the review, from saying the effects of the fire on mortality being a “plausible hypothesis” to a “supposition worthy of investigation”.

The inquiry also heard evidence from Monash University’s Professor Michael Abramson, who leads a long-term health study into the possible impacts of the Hazelwood coal fire.

Morwell community group Voices of the Valley spokesman Ron Ipsen told the inquiry that the community has lost faith in the Health Department, and that they regarded the department as being mistake-prone like cartoon character Homer Simpson.

The inquiry will continue through Thursday 3 September.

Image: The Australian