Legal advice obtained by Environment Victoria suggests the Hazelwood mine fire almost certainly breached the Environment Protection Act.
The advice, prepared by solicitors at Environmental Justice Australia for Environment Victoria, says that legal action by the EPA is the only way mine operator GDF Suez could be fined, and this would also open the way for affected residents to claim compensation.
Environment Victoria CEO Mark Wakeham today said:
“The fire was extinguished 18 months ago. There’s a clear case that the Environment Protection Act has been breached. It’s now time for the EPA to take legal action to bring GDF Suez to account for one of Victoria’s worst ever pollution events.
“The mine fire inquiry found that the fire was foreseeable and that the mine operators did not have the appropriate safeguards in place. Latrobe Valley residents were blanketed in toxic smoke for 45 days. With the EPA review underway, securing a successful prosecution is a key test of their powers and ability to protect Victoria’s environment.
“The legal advice suggests that Hazelwood committed at least two breaches of the Environment Protection Act – not complying with licence conditions and permitting air pollution. Other offences are also arguable in court.
“The Victorian community needs to know that the EPA is willing and able to hold polluters to account. If something as bad as the Hazelwood fire doesn’t lead to a prosecution, there need to be serious questions about whether the EPA has the powers it needs and the community expects.
“EPA legal action is critical to ensure justice for those affected by the mine fire, including enabling individuals and businesses affected to pursue compensation.”
The advice comes as the CFA is taking legal action against GDF Suez to recover the $18 million cost incurred through the 45-day fire-fight.
Internationally, GDF Suez parent company Engie is coming under increasing pressure for its ownership and operational failures at Hazelwood at the same time as it sponsors the upcoming Paris climate talks, which aim to make significant progress on an international agreement to limit global warming.
Mr Wakeham concluded:
“The social, environmental and health costs of outdated and polluting power stations like Hazelwood are unacceptable and growing. The EPA needs to demonstrate that breaches of the Environment Protection Act will not be tolerated and that companies will be held to account for the pollution and damage they create.”