‘From ashes to action’

There’ll be a handful of blokes across the Latrobe Valley stoking briquettes into backyard barbecues this Boxing Day, sparing a few moments thought for a much larger briquette fire 10 years earlier.

This Thursday marks the 10-year anniversary of a crippling fire which gutted the Energy Brix briquette factory in Morwell, bringing the business to its knees in an event which many thought was a surefire death knell for the already 47 year-old operation.

Then operations manager John Shankland was relaxing at his Hazelwood North home on the evening of 26 December 2003, when he a received a call about a “smallish” fire at the factory.

When he arrived on site, he was confronted by a scene much more serious.

Beginning as a spontaneous combustion of built-up coal in ‘A’ factory’s ground floor, the fire had quickly spread through the 10-storey building, internally covered with years worth of ambient coal dust.

“There wasn’t much we could do about it once we got there, we just had to make sure everyone was out and okay and accounted for,” Mr Shankland said.

By the time fire crews began arriving, the fire had already migrated to the operation’s reserve factory next door.

Despite about 40 firefighters, numerous appliances and the eventual arrival of an aerial unit from Dandenong working throughout the night to save the building, the factories were scorched beyond repair.

Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union’s mining division president Luke van der Meulen said it was a godsend no one was seriously injured in the blaze, (according to a report by The Express at the time, the only recorded injury was a strained calf.

“Leading up to that we were trying to tell the company they needed to clean up a lot of the processes in the plants which were causing some serious dust throughout the plant,” Mr van der Meulen said.

“We were telling them they were going to have major fire if they didn’t do anything about it.”

After a 20-hour firefight and mop up operation by fire crews, initial reports put the estimated damage bill at $13 million, and revealed the factory had been uninsured.

The business and its employees were quickly thrust into a period of turmoil, with more than 60 employees immediately stood down.

“It was a bloody bad day for the industry; one day they were all working in the factory, the next they were out of work and the place was completely shut down,” Mr van der Meulen said.

Mr Shankland was equally sombre about the ordeal.

“It was pretty tough because some of those blokes had been there a long time – that was all they had done their entire working lives – with the skills they had in the factory it would be hard to use them elsewhere,” Mr Shankland said.

Energy Brix’s extensive customer base, which included numerous dairy factories, and major neighbouring power stations Hazelwood and Loy Yang, were forced to source alternative fuel stocks, as the State Government implemented the Fuel Emergency Act to ensure the state’s hospitals received priority access to the company’s stockpiles.

After six weeks of negotiations for a multi-million dollar government rescue package failed, widespread fears were confirmed when Energy Brix Australia Corporation announced it would remain closed indefinitely, and 80 workers were being retrenched.

Amid months of subsequent industrial turmoil and dire predictions of the flow on impact the closure would have on the Valley’s economy, a glimmer of hope was burning behind the scenes.

Despite the significant capital costs in rebuilding the business, operations and maintenance service company Mecrus saw no waning in the country’s ongoing dependence on briquettes as a fuel source, and made a successful approach to Energy Brix to bankroll the factory’s reconstruction and ongoing operation.

“Walking into that site it was a bit of a daunting challenge – no one though it could be done – we faced a large amount of people who said we would never be able to do it, and that we would never produce one briquette,” Mecrus managing director Barry Richards said.

“We were up against some very extensive damage – there was a lot of electrical and mechanical damage throughout the plant which required a very intense rebuild program – it might have only taken two months, but took a lot of people, time and money,” Mr Richards said.

Through the job advertisement process, which attracted an “astronomical” number of applications, about 55 workers were employed into the rebuilt operation, the first briquette was produced under Mecrus in August, before the factory’s full re-commission in September. “We just this year completed over two million tonnes of briquette production (since the rebuild), so our catch cry for that was ‘from ashes to action’,” Mr Richards said.

“We’ve had our ups and down over the years, with enterprise bargaining agreement negotiations, the carbon tax, social licence, but we’ve managed to maintain consistent record, our people have remained focused to keep the business going.”

Energy Brix owner HRL did not respond to requests for comment on the fire.

For a firefighter’s riveting perspective of the 2003 Boxing Day Energy Brix blaze, read next Monday’s Express.

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