Water used to fight Hazelwood coal mine fire contaminated, concern for firefighters

A firefighter has had surgery on his hand after developing septicaemia as revelations emerge that the water being used to fight the Hazelwood coal mine fire is contaminated.

A small cut on the man’s finger turned septic and required emergency surgery and 22 stiches.

This prompted the United Firefighters Union (UFU) to test the safety of the water being used, with independent investigations finding there were high levels of E.Coli and coliforms in the water. The testing also detected the presence of Pseudomonas Aeruginosa.

It is understood E.Coli contamination was extremely high, with levels of 4,900 colonies per 100ml. Any reading above 126 colonies per 100 ml for E.coli bacteria is deemed dangerous to humans.

Victoria’s Fire Services Commissioner, Craig Lapsley, today admitted the UFU-commissioned testing was broader than previous investigations and as a result has asked the EPA to have the water tested by hygienists.

"We have asked the EPA to change their test regime to do the same as what the UFU have done in their independent review and have a look at those samples as well," Lapsley said.

"We took advice and obviously have gone down a certain road.

"UFU have gone a little bit further. (We) give them credit for that. We'll change our regime to get that right.”

The water being used by firefighters is sourced from a cooling dam at the bottom of a disused pit at the mine.

Incident Controller John Haynes said hygiene processes at the mine have been further stepped up to include a pump pack of anti-bacterial wash on all trucks, while the use of goggles, disposable gloves (used underneath personal protective clothing gloves) and a mask is strongly recommended for firefighters.

“Importantly, when firefighters undergo health checks before entering the site, they are asked if they have any wounds. If so, waterproof dressing is placed over them before entry,” he said.

Haynes said he was confident that water being used in the mine did not pose any health risks but said testing had been ramped up to ease concerns of firefighters. 

“In response to concerns expressed by UFU about bacteria, EPA yesterday began assisting with conducting micro-biological testing. Those results will be available in coming days, “Haynes said.

He said testing of the water’s metals and organic compounds showed the water did not pose a risk to health.

However the firefighting union’s Mick Tisbury says the safety of the firefighters is at risk.

“The results are horrific,” he told Australian Mining.

“They show extreme levels of e-coli, extreme levels of chloroforms and extreme levels of a bacteria called pseudomonas aeruginosa. One of the side effects is you could have a small nick on your body, a small cut and this micro-organism is very opportunistic and it will get in there and cause things like septicaemia.”

"There's been a lot of concern shown for the residents of Morwell, and rightly so," he told ABC local radio.

"There's been bugger all concern shown for the actual firefighters in the hole.

"Morwell South's been evacuated, but the firefighters, we've got not choice mate. We've got to expose ourselves to this stuff."

However Tisbury says it was unlikely fire crews would opt to abort the firefighting effort.

“If we stop fighting the fire Morwell is gone,” he said.

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.