The inquiry also heard of the anguish of a young couple trying to decide whether to evacuate the town, not knowing what effects the toxic plume might have on their unborn child. Its easy from Melbourne to say how bad it was, but when you hear a story like that, you start to understand how this disaster affected people on such a emotional and personal level.
But back to the mine itself: we heard that the pipes for the fire fighting sprinkler system in parts of the mine had to be removed because they were leaky and corroding, which was causing other problems. But they were never replaced – because a fire policy document written in the 1990s didn’t say they needed to be. Not exactly a shining example of “taking initiative” you might want to use in a job interview.
Later, a professor of mine safety from Queensland said that GDF Suez had not followed best practice, and the risk of fire in mine batters was “not adequately recognised”.
But the most interesting witness was GDF Suez’s mine rehabilitation manager (OK, that’s not his exact title, but its his responsibility). He conceded that they’re already behind schedule on their rehabilitation timelines, but from earlier witnesses it doesn’t seem like the Government is really doing anything to keep them to that timeline.
He said it was harder to rehabilitate the batters (the steep walls of the mine) because of a lack of overburden (the dirt and rocks that exist naturally over the coal and that needs to be cleared out before coal extraction can start).
The coal in the Latrobe Valley is close to the surface, and this has been a blessing for the industry since the day it began: it has been cheap to get the coal out. Now they’re complaining that there’s not enough stuff to cover things up again, and that it will cost too much to truck in extra soil. This is the latest example of GDF Suez trying to take the benefits for themselves while outsourcing the costs to others.
The rehab manager refused to comment on how much rehabilitation works might cost – even though it’s his job to manage the budget for those works. He wouldn’t provide averages of costs per hectare for rehab works – even though figures like this are used by government agencies to estimate total costs. And under questioning from Environment Victoria’s barrister, Lisa Nichols, he said he had “no idea” whether a $15m rehab bond was appropriate – even though everybody else, including the government, has been saying the bond is way too low. He didn’t even want to concede that rehabilitation costs would go up if the size of the mine increased.
On the final day, two more GDF Suez witnesses take the stand, along with a fire safety expert and Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley (for the second time).
The whole process has been fascinating, but it hasn’t exactly filled me with hope that we as a society have got our priorities straight. Watch this space.
Keep an eye on my twitter feed for real-time updates of what’s going on inside the Inquiry.