Melbourne author Tom Doig’s book about the 45-day fire at the Hazelwood open-cut coalmine, located less than 500 metres from the Gippsland town of Morwell, was five years in the making. Its publication was then delayed by another year because of court proceedings against the mine operators, who were fined almost $2 million last month.
When Doig spent 24 hours in Morwell during the fire, he developed headaches and started coughing up blood. He was horrified by the plight of the town’s citizens who had to endure more than a month of poisonous smoke and airborne coal ash. As he came to know many of these residents, he gained insight into the town, the fire and its consequences.
Doig criticises the inadequate responses of the government and the mine owners while refraining from mere recrimination. He traces the development of coalmining in the Latrobe Valley from the industry’s establishment in the 1920s through to the incident in question.
Doig’s consideration of the political and personal ramifications of this history provides an intimate perspective of Morwell’s residents that is told in a gentle, wry voice. He offers sympathetic details, such as people lamenting how ash killed their garden or attending tractor shows to take their mind off their declining health. His portraits are full of frailty and courage without becoming mawkish or manipulative.
As conversations continue about Australia’s ongoing support of and over-reliance on fossil fuel industries, and how to mitigate their contribution to the climate crisis, this story is a reminder of how the social and environmental consequences of coalmining can play out decades into the future.
In Hazelwood, the broad strokes of the official record are present, but they are primarily used as context for the human stories that took place amid headlines and committee reports. Doig zooms in on the finer details while also attempting to make sense of the catastrophe, and although in many ways there is no sense to what happened, the diligence and intimacy of his account may offer some comfort to those affected. The book may even serve as a call to arms for those who wish to ensure such things do not happen again.
Viking, 304pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2020 as "Tom Doig, Hazelwood ".
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