Blog | 10th Jun, 2014

Update from the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry at Morwell Day 2

Today’s proceedings at the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry were dominated by detailed discussion on the intricacies of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the role of the Victorian WorkCover Authority in reducing the risk of fires. Turns out people can debate the meaning of “the conduct of the undertaking” for quite a while.

One of the WorkCover witness came under questioning assisted by barrister Lisa Nichols, assisted by Jennifer Trewhella and briefed by our excellent legal friends at Environmental Justice Australia (formerly the EDO). In this cross-examination, it emerged that its up to GDF Suez to balance the costs to the community of a mine fire against the costs to the company of doing something to prevent it.

This doesn’t seem like a great incentive structure. Shall we ask the people of Morwell whether they’d choose to sacrifice their health for six weeks so that GDF Suez can avoid spending money to rehabilitated exposed areas of coal? The witness said “it depends how intolerable the risk is”. Given that people were evacuated (although belatedly), I’d say that’s pretty intolerable.

Our crack legal team also uncovered a WorkCover document that blew some of WorkCover’s own responses out of the water. The short version is that GDF Suez needs to deal with the risk of fire. They also need to do progressive rehabilitation of their mine. They can do both at the same time, since rehab is probably the most effective way of preventing fire. Protect the community from fire (tick!), take care of rehab requirement (tick!). Sounds like a win-win.

The WorkCover witnesses revealed a few other things that suggest the Victorian Government isn’t exactly keeping our coal mines on a short leash.

In 2012, Hazelwood provided an incomplete safety assessment of the risk of mine fires. The documentation shows no consideration of the likelihood of fire, its potential severity should it occur, or options for reducing the risk of fire.

GDF Suez did not apparently foresee a mine fire of that scale (despite large mine fires having happened in the past). WorkCover says it’s the company’s responsibility, not theirs, to identify the risks in the mine. At least they acknowledged that the consequences of such mine fires would be considered in future planning. You’d hope so.

Despite all this, it’s not even clear that any OHS rules have been broken. In disbelief, Sonia Petering on the Board of Inquiry asked, semi-rhetorically, “how a mine fire can burn for 45 days and still not breach any regulations?” In one question, she has largely summed up the Government’s failure to take these risks seriously.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of last night’s decision by the Latrobe City Council to petition Dennis Napthine to start planning for a new 2000 MW power station in the Latrobe Valley. If there was ever a time to start a smooth transition away from an energy source that pollutes our lungs and our atmosphere, this is it. The Hazelwood fire shows its time for change.


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