There’s a little book that has been sitting in my bookshelf for a couple of years, bought one chilly wet night at The Paperback Bookshop in Bourke St Melbourne (probably my favourite bookshop). I have severe Tsundoku (the japanese term for buying books and not reading them). But after hearing journalist Tom Doig speak at the Diversity In Disaster Conference, I was compelled to finally read it. The Coal Face is about the open cut fire in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria back in 2014. It takes the form of a Penguin Special, a series of longish essay on different topics that can be read in one session.
A bushfire in early February managed to ignite an abandoned part of the Hazelwood Mine. Now, not surprisingly, the reason why coal is mined is so it can be burnt to create energy. Brown coal is particularly effective as it is very combustible (growing up in an SECV household, I knew a lot about power generation, and surprisingly retained it). Mine fires have happened before, the most serious being the Yallourn in 1944, which one of the recommendations of the subsequent Royal Commission was the formation of the Country Fire Authority. With plenty of combustible fuel, they are near impossible to put out. And they release plenty of shit into the air.
As Tom said in his session, the event/incident was initially a bushfire, then eventually it became a public health issue, and finally he said its a social justice issue. The book is immensely readable. It tells a story, the story of many people, of the impacts, of the conflicting advice given, of the unwillingness to recognise what was happening and do something about it, but more importantly recognising the seeds of this disaster were sown 70 years before. It also tells of normal, everyday people who become activists, who have never spoken to crowds before, grabbing megaphones. It is also an indictment on privatisation. His dissection of some of the public advice led to him calling it Morwellian, plenty of double speak.
What we are seeing now are the long term health consequences of the the fire. It took a change of government to commit to a long term health study. People are more likely to have heart attacks, asthma issues.
It really brought into sharp focus for me the underlying role of poverty and disadvantage in disaster vulnerability. Really, when you look at the work that I’ve done on disaster resilience capacities, the key theme is disadvantage, or social exclusion, and lack of access to resources. People’s health is determined by their environment and financial capacity, their safety, etc. Social connection, and social capital can be built, despite disadvantage (we saw Latin American neighborhoods in Chicago, coping better with the heatwave, than African American neighbourhoods.). We think about this as a development issue, overseas, but we never think about it here in Australia. Yet it is still relevant.
We speak of disasters being the hazard impact, and then the second disaster is the recovery process. In some ways, the first disaster is who let this happen in the first place, and the second disaster is the impact, and the third is the recovery process.
The book has a clear journalistic tone, an old school steely determination to tell a story, and a human story. It is told with a warmth and an empathy. Some recent book form accounts of disasters feel more like gotcha journalism. Coal Face is not that. Tom lets the people tell the story, and rarely editorialises.I am really looking forward to his long form version, called Hazlewood. If Coal Face is anything to go by, Hazlewood should be as influential as Kai Erickson’s Everything in its Path.