Tom Doig’s Hazelwood begins with Scott Morrison proclaiming to Parliament, ‘This is coal. Don’t be afraid … It won’t hurt you’, and concludes, 284 riveting pages later, that ‘the Australian coal industry doesn’t just cause disasters – it is a disaster’.
In February 2014, during ‘the worst drought and heatwave south-eastern Australia had experienced in over a century’, embers from two bushfires ignited the worked-out northern coalface of the Hazelwood mine. Seven kilometres long, four kilometres wide and forty storeys deep, the steep ‘northern batters’ of the mine were seamed with clay and coal and tangled with unruly undergrowth. There was nothing to stop the fire spreading deep into the coal seams. The fire was out of control for forty-five days, and was not finally extinguished for another seventy-two, on June 6.
A few weeks into the fire, David Briggs was employed by a contractor to drive an earth-working bulldozer and help extinguish the fire. He took a compulsory health examination and his lung function was rated at 144 per cent of normal function; his lung capacity was ‘not far off that of a professional cyclist’. He worked long night shifts (they could only see the deep seams of fire at night), with no special protective clothing or gas mask. The money was good but the work was hard, filthy, and terrifying, with his machine often bogged at the perilous edge of a burning, molten drop. ‘The deeper David dug into a burning coal fault with his 35-tonne excavator, the hotter and smokier it got. He sometimes had to dig the equivalent of six storeys deep, scooping out mounds of pulsing red-orange coal from the darkness.’ When his wife, Penny, said he should complain about the conditions, David responded ‘If I say something, I won’t be working next week.’