Inquiry hearings conclude

The Latrobe Valley will become the state’s first ‘health conservation area’ and have its own health advocate, if recommendations from counsel assisting the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry are adopted.

Presenting its final submissions to the Board on Tuesday, counsel assisting listed a raft of recommendations for change, including the establishment of an automatic air monitoring station in the southern part of Morwell, funded by GDF SUEZ; and an extension of the Department of Health’s long-term health study from 10 years to 20.

The public hearings of the Inquiry concluded yesterday after 16 days.

There were 160 individual submissions and 600 more through the Environment Victoria website.

The Board of Inquiry now has until the end of August to hand down its findings and recommendations to government.

In her final remarks, counsel assisting the Inquiry Melinda Richards said fire services were “generally very well prepared” for the extreme fire weather conditions on 9 February, however the request for additional resources by Incident Controller Laurie Jeremiah the day before to combat the Hernes Oak Fire – which spotted into the mine – was not entirely met.

“Rather than three strike teams, two were made available but, more importantly, the additional aircraft that he requested on the afternoon of 8 February didn’t arrive in the Latrobe Valley until about noon the following day,” Ms Richards said.

She said personnel in the mine did not appreciate the “grave risk that was posed” by the Hernes Oak fire.

“Instead of planning for the worst, they hoped for the best,” she said.

Ms Richards highlighted none of the senior mine personnel who were designated as emergency commanders were on site when the fire broke out.

Among other criticisms, she said efforts to suppress the fire were hampered by limited reticulated water in the worked out batters of the mine, as the Inquiry had heard pipes were removed between the mid-1990s and 2007.

Counsel assisting commended the Environment Protection Authority for deploying an “impressively qualified” group of scientists to undertake monitoring fairly quickly, but said there was an “unsatisfactory delay” in providing data for decision-makers.

Ms Richards said respite and relocation payments by the Department of Human Services, “did not have to be made” and they were made “relatively quickly”, however the eligibility criteria was not well explained.

While Ms Richards praised the establishment of the community health assessment centre on 21 February, there were a range of criticisms directed towards the Department of Health.

She said on 15 February carbon monoxide levels exceeded those identified as acceptable for the community in the Health Management and Decontamination Plan that was being applied by fire services to their firefighters. A watch and act alert was issued by the incident controller, however the following day, the Department developed a CO protocol which applied very different exposure levels for the community.

“It remains completely unclear why the community should tolerate exposure standards that would not be expected of firefighters,” Ms Richards said.

She said on the evening of 16 February, the CO levels – even using the new protocol – were high enough to warrant “at least a watch and act message” to shelter in a place, but the Department took no action other than to issue a routine bushfire smoke advisory for the following day.

“The inaction on that evening was dangerous and it is fortunate that, as far as we know, no harm resulted.”

Ms Richards said state chief health officer Dr Rosemary Lester’s advice on 28 February to vulnerable groups in Morwell’s south to temporarily relocate was too late, considering the emergency management team was advised from 12 February the fire was likely to burn for up to a month.

She also criticised that this advice was only given to those south of Commercial Road.

Ms Richards described the bushfire smoke advisories issued by the EPA and Dr Lester as “repetitive, poorly focused and really quite unhelpful”.

“It was of little use to a person who lived in Morwell to be told that it was going to be smoky,” she said.

She said the advice should have been better tailored to the actual conditions and contained more practical advice about avoiding the impacts of the smoke.

Ms Richards said GDF SUEZ was “conspicuous in its absence” from public communications and its “public utterances demonstrated little concern for the community”.

She said although the relocation of Commercial Road and Sacred Heart primary schools was relatively quick, it could have been quicker.

In regard to firefighter safety, counsel assisting the Inquiry, Peter Rozen commended the Country Fire Authority, Metropolitan Fire Brigade and GDF SUEZ for deploying CO monitors for firefighters.

Mr Rozen said the CFA should have responded well before February 2014 to the recommendations in its 2007 report into the 2006 fire at the Hazelwood mine by developing a procedure for dealing with exposure to CO during firefighting.

While GDF SUEZ should have had in place a comprehensive procedure for managing the exposure of its employees to CO during a mine fire.

Counsel assisting’s final submission commended GDF SUEZ for recognising it needed to adopt a new approach to manage fire risk in the worked out batters, however it should have conducted a risk assessment as recommended by consultant GHD following the September 2008 fire.

One of counsel assisting’s recommendations is that both the Department of State Development, Business and Innovation and the Victorian WorkCover Authority are made responsible for regulating the risk of mine fires.

The submission also stated there was a large gap between fire protection policies outlined in the Latrobe Planning Scheme and the reality of land use in the vicinity of the Mine as there was no buffer zone between the Hazelwood Mine and the town of Morwell.

“The provisions of the Latrobe Planning Scheme that require a buffer zone of between 750 and 1,000 metres post date the approval in the 1940s of a new open cut mine adjacent to Morwell,” the submission stated.