Blog | 9th Jun, 2014

Update from the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry at Morwell

In the third week of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, the focus of the Board has now turned to ways of reducing the risk of fire at Hazelwood. As we made clear in our submission, covering exposed coal surfaces with earth and clay is one of the best option for dealing with fire risk: if the coal isn’t exposed to air, its much harder for it to catch on fire.

This kind of “rehabilitation” is a legal requirement in GDF Suez’s mining licence, but there have been big question marks over the quantity and quality of rehabilitation work that has been happening at Hazelwood.

Following Environment Victoria’s request on the opening day of the inquiry, this week we have “leave to appear” before the Board, meaning we are able to cross-examine witnesses on rehabilitation matters. As Victoria’s leading public advocate on how we manage our mines, we’re excited to have this opportunity, and we look forward to representing the voice of the people on what is happening in the state’s coal mines.

This morning in the witness stand was Kylie White, the head of the Government’s Energy and Earth Resources branch, in the Department of State Development, Business & Innovation (DSDBI).

In response to questions from barristers from the both Inquiry and Environment Victoria, a few fascinating (and troubling) things have emerged.

Firstly, there is a fundamental gap between the two key regulators of the mine. On the one hand, DSDBI is responsible for pretty much all mine management and enforcement of the approved Work Plan for the site, but they do not regulate for fire safety. Fire safety is seen as an OHS issue, so the Victorian WorkCover Authority is responsible.

The problem here is that WorkCover seems to primarily see OHS as a workplace issue, but coal mine fires can clearly have a terrible effect on people beyond the boundary of the workplace. So nobody is regulating the mine to ensure a fire doesn’t affect the broader community, despite a long history of such events.

There has also been a serious communication breakdown between DSDBI and GDF Suez in terms of the timing of rehabilitation work. The Government regulator thinks the dates in the Work Plan are when rehabilitation of certain sections should be finished. GDF Suez thinks this is when rehabilitation should start.

It’s a fairly serious difference of opinion. In response to one of our Freedom of Information requests, DSDBI indicated they have had no correspondence with GDF Suez about their rehabilitation since 2009. I’d say its time they start talking.

More promisingly, Kylie White from DSDBI has acknowledged that the existing rehabilitation bond of $15m “seems to be an underestimate”, and that bonds of coal mines across the state are in need of review. Apparently this review was slated to happen in 2010 but the process was inexplicably stalled. Given the events of earlier this year and the experience of the people of Morwell and the wider Latrobe Valley, we expect the Government to now commit to prioritising this review.

Appropriate rehabilitation bonds are critical because they create a big incentive for mining companies to clean up their mess. If they just pull up stumps and leave, taxpayers are left to foot the bill to ensure the site can’t catch on fire. The Government can try to get this money back from GDF Suez, but it would be limited to whatever assets the company has, and just last week we learned that the GDF Suez parent company is trying to sell off its share in much of its Australian assets.

Up tomorrow: witnesses from WorkCover to talk about their approach to fire prevention.

Also, keep an eye on my twitter feed for real-time updates of what’s going on inside the Inquiry.