Gasping Australians Flee Beijing-Style Smog as Coal Mine Burns

A coal mine fire burning for almost a month is forcing residents of an Australian town from their homes after pollution more than 22 times above recommended safe levels triggered a health alert.

Firefighters are pumping as much as 84,000 liters of water a minute, the equivalent of about two Olympic-size swimming pools an hour, onto the burning mine at GDF Suez’s Hazelwood power station in Victoria state, according to local authorities. Pollution readings in the nearby town of Morwell, 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of Melbourne, peaked last month at levels beyond hazardous on the Air Quality Index.

Residents have abandoned more than half of the 750 homes in the worst-affected area, as families with pregnant women, elderly people and young children take up A$1,250 ($1,128) weekly payments to temporarily relocate, according to the state government. Victoria’s Premier Denis Napthine has urged people in the region to offer vacant holiday homes to those seeking respite and pledged use of his own coastal vacation property.

“The ash falling out of the sky every day was getting in to every part of the house that wasn’t air tight, it smelled like an ashtray,” said Nick Albon, a 30-year-old engineer who moved out of his home about 500 meters from the mine’s northern boundary on Feb. 16. “Headaches were the first thing to instantly hit. As soon as you got out in the smoke, you could taste it in your mouth whenever you were outside.”

Beijing Smog

The concentration of PM2.5, the small particles that pose the greatest risk to human health, in Morwell South peaked on Feb. 22 when they reached a 24-hour average of 565.3 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to Environmental Protection Agency Victoria data. Such levels in Beijing prompted authorities to order factory closures last month as thick smog shrouded the Chinese capital.

The World Health Organization recommends day-long exposure levels of less than 25 micrograms.

People aged over 65, pregnant women, families with pre-school aged children and residents with heart or lung conditions living in streets closest to the blaze have been advised to leave until air quality improves, according to Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Rosemary Lester.

About 440 households have been given funding to relocate and some residents who aren’t eligible for grants are also leaving, said Geoff Russell, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Human Services.

In addition to those offered relocation, about 1,400 other households in Morwell have been given as much as A$500 to fund short trips away.

“You only have to walk the streets to see that it’s quiet,” said Russell. Morwell has about 14,000 residents, according to 2011 Census data.

Black Saturday

Wildfires last month destroyed about about 20 properties in Victoria in the region’s worst blazes since the so-called Black Saturday tragedy in 2009, when 173 people were killed and 150 homes razed. Detectives are investigating whether the Hazelwood blaze began after a fire was deliberately lit on Feb. 9 on the Strzelecki Highway, spreading through a timber plantation and to the mine, according to Victoria Police.

The mine blaze may be extinguished by next week, GDF Suez Australian Energy spokesman Trevor Rowe said. “It is weather dependent, as a change of wind can flare it up again, but we are hoping that we’ve got the end in sight,” Rowe said.

Hazelwood, which supplies about 5 percent of Australia’s energy and produces around 10 TWh of electricity per year, is operating at normal capacity as the blaze is in parts of its coal mine not currently in use, according to Rowe.

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