Deaths at Morwell

Sep 28, 2014

Local residents of Morwell were concerned about pollution deaths caused by fire at Hazelwood coal mine. They worked with Associate Professor Adrian Barnett from QUT to analyze data, and concluded in freely available analysis that it probably caused about 11-14 deaths.

That seems modest, plausible and uncontroversial to me. Coal fire pollution is well understood to be toxic.

The Victorian Health Minister David Davis was asked in parliament if he would re-open the inquiry into the fire. He said no, which - having not read that inquiry - seems to me potentially justifiable. Inquiries are expensive, maybe they’d looked at similar data, maybe it isn’t relevant to that inquiry, etc.

Instead, he a) trivialised the math – wrongly, or at least misleadingly, from what I can tell – and b) attacked Barnett directly:

He is an individual who has been a hardline, left-wing activist. He is a climate change person. He wants to push the climate change barrow. What is more, he is a person who has clearly entered the political fray with misleading and inaccurate information. He has presented it in a certain way for political purposes. He, like the Greens and some Labor members, wants to close down coalmining in the Latrobe Valley. Let us pull no punches about what is going on here. It is a few hardline lefties out there trying to say that things are terrible and therefore we should close down coalmining.

I don’t know whether the inquiry should be re-opened, but there is no way we can figure it out if this is how politicians “debate”. Ad hominem attacks on scientists (particularly when they’re not even true!), especially by those who we allow to govern us, are unacceptable.

Barnett wrote about this on The Conversation, including a link to his paper.

Letter to Health Minister David Davis

Delivered to on Sep 28, 2014.

Dear Mr. Davis,

I just read the recent Hansard transcription of your response to Mr Jennings asking whether the inquiry into the Hazelwood coal-mine fire would be re-opened in light of evidence presented by Adrian Barnett. “No” seems a potentially reasonable answer to me (at the very least: the evidence was modest and inquiries are expensive). You said this, but I was disappointed in the way that you said it. It is important to me that those who govern and make important choices on my behalf accurately present information and argue persuasively, otherwise I cannot trust the decisions being made are good ones for our state.

That is why I am writing you now.

Barnett’s model adjusted for seasonal weather variations and other factors. For example, hot weather causes more deaths. Your comparison of plain averages was not relevant, and I found the manner in which you delivered it trivialising and dismissive (“When I went to school 27 was a bigger number than 22”). His model may be flawed, misleading, or plain wrong, but if so you could have addressed that directly.

You then attacked Barnett’s character (“He is an individual who has been a hardline, left-wing activist”, etc.) I was disturbed by this ad hominem attack. It seemed excessive. The data is freely available to be analysed and interpreted, and his claim was modest. To me, you undermined your own authority here.

I don’t have an opinion on whether the inquiry should be re-opened. I would like to. Your response, and the manner in which you delivered it, did not provide me with clarity.

Regards, Xavier Shay