THE management of the Hazelwood mine and its regulation by government is expected to come under fierce scrutiny in coming weeks, as questions arise over the mine’s fire preparedness prior to the current emergency.
With limited progress being made 10 days into the firefight, frustrations are peaking over the mine’s conditions before the fire outbreak on 9 February, with stakeholders and observers labelling the affected site’s former state as “an unacceptable fire risk”.
Numerous firefighter and mining insider sources have agreed in separate interviews with The Express the combination of unused mine batters left exposed to the elements for decades without rehabilitation, and the lack of firefighting water pipelines in the affected mine area, had largely inflamed the current blaze.
Another inside source described the removal of water mains in the late 1990s and early noughties from the affected section of mine the symptom of “blatant cost cutting” and a lasting legacy of the privatisation of the power industry.
“If they had adequate pipelines in place, they wouldn’t be this deep into the situation as they are now – they have taken a big risk here, and it’s come back to bite them and everyone in the community,” the source said.
Only 400 metres south of the Morwell township, the fire has entrapped residents in an unrelenting cloud of raw coal fire smoke, broken air pollution records and thrown the community into a public health emergency.
With a 1.2-kilometre, 300-millimetre water main line still hastily being constructed by mine operator GDF SUEZ Australian Energy to the firefront, and windy conditions still to come, the CFA has predicted the firefight will last weeks.
Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union mining and energy president Luke van der Meulen said on ongoing regime of cost cutting at the operation had created a “negligent risk to the community”.
“The company is operating in a financially constrained time and will always try and do the things that Hazelwood does – but the only thing that prevents that is regulation, which clearly hasn’t been going on here,” Mr Van der Meulen said.
“The government has been asleep at the wheel for a long time, and I think there has been far too cozy a relationship between regulators and these power corporations and no one from the community gets a look in to this.”
However a spokesperson for GDF SUEZ said the fire preparedness of the mine had nothing to do with cost cutting.
“GDF SUEZ Hazelwood has a comprehensive fire prevention and protection strategy in place in the Morwell mine to protect this critical infrastructure,” the spokesperson said.
“It is important to remember that this fire started outside the mine in quite extraordinary weather conditions that posed a threat, not only to the mine but to large parts of the surrounding farmland and communities.”
However Monash University environmental engineering senior lecturer Gavin Mudd said mine management should have been far better prepared for the risk of fire spread from neighbouring grassfire.
“That entire section of mine has been unused for years – decades in some areas – it should have been completely rehabilitated by now with a clay or soil cover – the question is whether they’ve been allowed to constantly defer the capping of those mines under their mining licence requirements,” Dr Mudd said.
“Either the regulation on the mine in terms of rehabilitation is far too lax, or the policing of it is just not happening – but either way there’s clearly been a major stuff up somewhere.”
Attempts by The Express to clarify which regulatory authority was ultimately responsible for policing the suitability of fire services in the mine were unsuccessful, receiving different responses from different government departments.
A spokeswoman for Energy and Resources Minister Nicholas Kotsiras said all arrangements relating to fire prevention at mines were regulated by fire authorities.
Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said emergency authorities had input into the development of occupational health and safety plans and the associated emergency management plans – which covers fire fighting infrastructure within the mine – but it was regulated by WorkSafe.
A spokesman for the Victorian WorkCover Authority said the mine operator was required to have an emergency response plan in place for issues such as fires, developed in conjunction with the emergency services and the local council.
“The VWA may review this plan as part of its regulatory function,” the VWA spokesperson said.
In response to rehabilitation concerns, the GDF SUEZ spokesperson said the company was “comfortable” it had worked closely with the State Government in adhering to mining licence requirements.
“Pipelines have not operated in the northern batters area of the mine for 40 years or more as this is not an operational area of the mine. Some inoperative pipelines were removed to enable rehabilitation programs to proceed,” the spokesperson said.
“Rehabilitation of the Morwell mine is an ongoing process, with some of the areas on the northern batters where the fire has been burning already rehabilitated.”
However the spokesperson could not clarify how much of the dormant section of mine had been rehabilitated.
Environment Victoria’s acting chief executive Mark Wakeham said the whole situation called for a public inquiry into what had contributed to the incident’s severity and its impact on the community.
“There seems to be a persistent and patented culture of failure in regulation of the oldest mines in the Valley, where the regulator appears ill-equipped or disinterested in doing anything about it,” Mr Wakeham said.
“The public deserves to know whether it’s the company’s failing to meet requirements government has set for them or whether the government is not setting adequate benchmarks for the operation.”
Mr Kotsiras’ office said all government agencies were entirely focused on putting out this fire and dealing with the impacts on the community, and government would assess and review the incident after the situation was brought under control.