“Question what you are being told, stand up for the truth, and don't expect that these companies will do the right thing by communities”: Interview with Wendy Farmer

In 2014, a devastating fire which claimed lives and caused catastrophic environmental damage broke out at the Hazelwood Mine in the Latrobe Valley.

Raging for 45-days, the impact of the fire continued well after it was contained, with animals and people becoming terminally ill due to toxic pollution. Determined to be heard – and to have their concerns taking seriously – locals established Voices of the Valley, playing a key role in lobbying for an inquiry into the fire and its impacts on the community.

In 2016, Voices of the Valley was awarded the Premier’s Sustainability Award, and today the group continues to work to provide a voice for public concerns over direct impact and long-term health, welfare, economic and environmental effects. 

Ahead of her panel discussion at EFFA 2018, linked with the screening of Dark Eden, we chat with Voices of the Valley President, Wendy Farmer, about the work of her organisation, and the devastating fire which lead to the establishment of Voices of the Valley.    

Tell us about Voices of the Valley. How did this group form, and what is your key focus today?

Voices of the Valley is an advocacy group which formed during the Hazelwood Mine Fire when the Government was telling the community the air is okay, but our community was getting sick and being poisoned. Community members came together holding a protest called "Disaster in the Valley", frustrated that nobody was helping us. Our key focus in 2018 is health and community transitions.

Tells us about the day that the tragic Hazelwood coal mine fire of 2014 started – what happened, and how did you feel?

It was predicted to be a bad weekend. We had already seen fires in the area from the Friday night, and early on Sunday afternoon we received a phone call to say a fire had entered the mine, and all workers were required to go to work. My husband worked at the mine, and it took him a fair while to get to work as there were fires all around us, with many road blocks. That evening we lost power, and there were reports of explosions in the mine, but I couldn't find out any information. It became a long, terrifying night lying in bed waiting for news.  

How did the community cope, and how long did it take to realise the severity of the fire’s impact on people’s health and on the environment?

The community quickly became frustrated. By the next day it became clear the fire wouldn't be out quickly, and within the first week we started seeing the health impacts on people. Our animals started getting sick and dying, and we all knew people who were sick. Then we saw that people were dying.

Voices of the Valley President, Wendy Farmer

Voices of the Valley President, Wendy Farmer

How did the community react when the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry determined that the fire contributed to 13 extra deaths in the Latrobe Valley, and how has the community moved forward from this?

Voices of the Valley was the first group to prove that people had died through the fire – it took a lot of work for the team to get government and health officials to listen. In fact, there was an obvious cover up, and politicians were trying to prove us wrong, and paint us as trouble makers.  We were relieved that someone had believed us and it meant we could now address the health deficit that existed. Some people in the community have moved on and forgotten, but for others they struggle to move on. The company is now awaiting trials on 14 charges of OH&S breeches from Worksafe, and 12 charges from the EPA.

What's your biggest piece of advice for other community groups lobbying for environmental justice?

Question what you are being told, stand up for the truth, and don't expect that these international companies will do the right thing by communities.

How did the Hazelwood fire change your own personal relationship and thinking about the environment broadly?

Before the Hazelwood mine fire, I was not an activist and had never really considered the environment. I was quiet and trusted those in authority to look after us. I didn't question or challenge them; I was rather placid. After the fire I continued with advocacy work and after a period gave up my part-time job to volunteer full time on advocacy work. I now speak at many conferences about what happened, about the work we continue to do, and about how communities need to support Just Transitions. Hazelwood Powerstation and Mine closed within five months of announcing a complete shutdown, leaving our community fearful of our future. What happened in our community could happen anywhere in the world.

Dark Eden explores various perspectives of people working in industries / jobs which impact the environment, including the need to gain work where you can. Based on experiences from your community, how do you think people cope when faced with this sort of compromise?

People need to work to feed their families, it is hard to say to these people that they are making their kids sick or damaging the environment when the most important thing to them is to feed their kids. I believe these people have to believe themselves that climate change is not real to do the job they do. Often people become so reliant on large, usually international, industries that set up in our communities that they learn quickly not to talk against them or they won't have work.  

What are you hoping people take away from this film and the panel discussion?

I hope Dark Eden makes people think about the damage these companies are doing in our communities and that anyone can stand up and make a difference.

Join us for a Q&A with Wendy following a screening of Dark Eden, 5pm Sunday 14 October at ACMI, Federation Square. Book now via the ACMI website