GDF Suez ‘not adequately prepared’ for mine fire

The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry has found GDF Suez was not adequately prepared for the events of February this year.

It has recommended the State Government extend its long-term health study to 20 years, take the lead in advocating for a national compliance standard of fine particulate matter and review its communications strategy.

A total of 18 recommendations were handed down as part of the Inquiry report which was tabled in parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

Six of those are recommendations to mine owner and operator GDF SUEZ, including conducting a risk assessment, assisted by an independent consultant, of the likelihood and consequences of fire in the worked-out areas of the Hazelwood mine and an assessment of the most effective fire protection for the exposed coal surfaces.

It also recommended revision of the company’s emergency response plan to increase its state of readiness on days of total fire ban and require pre-establishment of an emergency command centre, along with improvements to its crisis management communications strategy for Hazelwood, in line with international best practice.

The report states the company’s inability to effectively suppress the mine fire during the initial stages was due “in large part to the mine operator being inadequately prepared to manage the fire”.

“…the fire prevention and preparedness measures at the Hazelwood mine are well-suited to most kinds of mine fires,” the report stated.

“However, GDF Suez was not adequately prepared for a fire of the kind, severity and complexity of the Hazelwood mine fire.

“This was primarily because GDF Suez did not sufficiently recognise the risk of embers from a bushfire causing a major fire in the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine, or the potential impacts such a fire might have on Morwell and surrounding communities.”

The government was “generally well prepared” for the extreme fire weather conditions on 9 February, the report stated.

“However, the Board acknowledges that the Traralgon Incident Control Centre was put under significant pressure because a strategic decision was made at both regional and state levels not set up the base Incident Control Centre in Yarram,” the report stated.

“These resourcing issues left the Traralgon Incident Control Centre in the unenviable position of having to prepare for and deal with fire activity over a large area of Gippsland.”

The report found there was no evidence to support the theory the fire had started from within the mine and the most likely cause was embers spotting from the Hernes Oak fire, while spotting from the Driffield fire “may have also contributed”.

It said it was impossible to quantify the cost of the fire, but a broad estimate of the cost to government, the community and GDF Suez exceeded $100 million.

The report stated in respect to the regulation of fire risk at the Hazelwood mine, both the Mining Regulator and the Victorian Workcover Authority “failed to recognise the fire was a hazard that not only had the potential to affect the health and safety of employees, but also the Morwell community”.

However, the Board said there was not necessarily a regulatory gap, as both bodies had statutory powers enabling them to influence and enforce compliance with fire prevention practices in the mine, however they both adopted a “narrow reading” of the statutory regime underlining their respective areas of responsibility, which resulted in a practical gap in regulation.

The Board labelled the advice by the Department of Health in smoke advisories as generic and repetitive, with little practical advice about how to minimise the harmful effects of smoke.

“When a community is covered in smoke, residents need advice about how to protect themselves. Schools and businesses need advice about whether to close and if outdoor events should be cancelled,” the report stated.

It stated the bushfire smoke protocol should contain a “table of triggers”, detailing how and when people should respond to levels of smoke.

The Board found the Department of Health’s PM 2.5 protocol, “whilst appropriate”, was developed too late and by the time it was in place, the local community had already been subjected to elevated levels for over two weeks.

The report stated Chief Health Officer Rosemary Lester’s advice on 28 February that vulnerable group living south of Commercial Road should consider relocation, was provided too late and she had sufficient information to issue the advice shortly after the weekend of 15 and 16 February.

One of the recommendations to the government is to equip itself to undertake rapid air quality monitoring in any location in Victoria.

The Board has also recommended the government review and revise the community carbon monoxide response protocol and the firefighter CO protocol to be consistent with each other and ensure both include assessment methods and trigger points for specific responses.

“The Board considers it unfortunate that the Department of Health did not have in place pre-existing carbon monoxide protocol to provide advice to the community about elevated levels of carbon monoxide.

“The Board is concerned that acute exposure standards, used as a basis for the community carbon monoxide protocol are too high according to international experts and should be reviewed … levels that were not considered safe for firefighters and required evacuation, did not require the same response if the level was measured in the community.”

The report also lists ‘affirmations’ – actions the state or GDF Suez had already indicated they would undertake.

These include GDF Suez initiate a program for reducing vegetation in the worked out areas of the northern batters of the mine; maintain and continue the additional pipe system in the northern batters which was installed during the fire and install additional pipework; and conduct a review of the current pipework and condition in the areas other than the eastern section of the northern batters.

There will be detailed coverage of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry report in Thursday’s Express.