Media Releases | 19th May, 2014

Hazelwood fire an accident waiting to happen

19 May 2014

Environment Victoria’s submission to the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry exposes a failing system of mine management, with an independent certified mine auditor claiming the fire was “an accident waiting for a time to happen.”

The submission to the Inquiry, accompanied by two reports from independent mine auditors, focuses on the failure to properly rehabilitate formerly mined areas of the pit, which allowed the fire to spread widely throughout the Hazelwood mine.

Government responses to a Freedom of Information request by Environment Victoria reveal that since 2009 the State Government regulator has failed to undertake any communication with mine operator GDF Suez on its rehabilitation program, despite having been warned by its Technical Review Board that existing rehabilitation measures are inadequate.

Environment Victoria’s Safe Climate Campaign Manager Nicholas Aberle today said:

“The fact that this fire happened shows that things aren’t working when it comes to managing the impacts of coal mining in the Latrobe Valley. GDF Suez has done as little to safeguard the site as it can get away with, and the Government has been complacent and failed to provide for the safety of the local residents and the environment.

“The certified auditors commissioned by Environment Victoria identified serious shortcomings in the approved rehabilitation plans for the mine.”

“The best way to prevent coal from catching fire is to ensure it is covered with earth and clay and revegetated. With the State Government requiring that Hazelwood mine’s owners pay a rehabilitation bond of just $15 million, there’s no financial incentive for the company to begin rehabilitation and ensure the fire safety of its mine. There’s a real risk that with such an inadequate bond the company could just pull up stumps one day and walk away, leaving Victorian taxpayers to foot the bill for rehabilitation or be left with a hazardous site.

“The submission outlines that rehabilitation costs based on estimates by interstate regulators suggest it could cost as much as $500 million to rehabilitate the Hazelwood mine alone, and more for the power station. There are two other massive open cut coal mines in the Latrobe Valley, so that’s potentially a $1.5 billion liability hanging over Treasury’s coffers and ultimately Victorian taxpayers.  This is why our submission calls for the Auditor-General to conduct a review of existing rehabilitation bonds at mine sites across the state.

The submission also urges the Inquiry to investigate the cause of the fire, noting the possibility that spontaneous ignition, rather than grassfire arson, was the culprit. Other issues raised in the submission include elevated chromium levels detected by the EPA in the Morwell wetlands, and the unaccounted-for greenhouse gas emissions from the burnt coal.

“What this episode shows is that there is no more business as usual in the Latrobe Valley. This fire and other major mine failures in previous years at Yallourn and Hazelwood show that the State Government can’t manage the mines we already have, let alone deal with the impacts of pursuing their dangerous plans for new export coal mines,” said Dr Aberle.


Reports by independent certified mine auditors

In developing its submission, Environment Victoria sought analysis from two independent and certified mine rehabilitation auditors as to the adequacy of rehabilitation objectives and efforts at Hazelwood. These reports should be read in their entirety (see Appendices to the submission) but important points made within these reports include:

•    The fire was “an accident waiting for a time to happen” (Appendix A, p13);
•    “The information necessary to plan, provide cost estimates, schedule and implement rehabilitation is insufficient and arguably absent” (Appendix B, p8);
•    Successful rehabilitation works would require a “significantly greater amount of money” than the $15m bond (Appendix B, p8);
•    “Some coal batters have been covered with unconsolidated overburden consisting of cracking and/or dispersive clay material. This material would have been ineffective for fire-proofing” (Appendix A, p13);
•    “There is evidence that rehabilitation, in particular the earthworks associated with covering the coal batters with overburden, had very low priority” (Appendix A, p 14).

Read Environment Victoria’s submission to the Hazelwood mine fire inquiry >