Perfect storm of events ‘foreseeable’

The owner of the Hazelwood open cut mine has maintained it did everything possible to prevent fire spreading into the mine, despite being handed a scathing report card by the mine fire inquiry.

The Inquiry Board deemed GDF SUEZ Australian Energy “fell short” of its obligations under occupational health and safety law when it failed to properly identify hazards associated with a fire in the worked areas of the mine.

While the board noted GDF SUEZ’s “main fire prevention strategy” – vegetation management in the rural land surrounding the mine – as an effective tool against direct fire fronts, the measure did not address the risk of a mass ember attack into the mine from external sources as experienced in February.

“In effect, reliance on the minimum requirements under GDF SUEZ’s fire management policies meant that there was no preventive measure in place to protect the worked out areas from ember attack,” the board found.

“Contrary to suggestions (by GDF SUEZ during the Inquiry) that the Hazelwood mine fire was the ‘perfect storm of events’, all of the factors contributing to the ignitions and spread of the fire were foreseeable.”

However GDF SUEZ group manager corporate affairs Jim Kouts said he “respectively disagreed” with the Board’s comment regarding foreseeability.

“The issue was what we saw as a company coming, we saw some of the most extreme conditions since Black Saturday,” Mr Kouts said.

“At the start of the day when this issue kicked off there were over 35 staff on site, CFA were dealing with fires outside of the mine, and the Hernes Oak fire was at one point under control.

“The evidence that was given to Inquiry, and that is under oath about the ‘perfect storm’… as a company we still maintain that enough resources were thrown to (fire preparedness on the day).”

Meanwhile, the Board also identified the lack of a backup power supply or emergency generators during the incident – which fed the internal fire service network’s pumping stations – as an area of “major” concern.

The comment came after evidence given during the Inquiry found the mine’s operating sections of fire reticulation pipework reduced to a trickle when power was cut during the fire.

The report was also critical of the company’s failure to undertake a risk assessment after a September 2008 fire in the worked out areas of the mine, despite its recommendation in a subsequent investigation report.

“(As such) an opportunity to substantially improve fire protection measures in the worked areas of the mine and potentially avoid or reduce the severity of the 2014 mine fire was lost.”

While six out of 18 Inquiry report recommendations were directed at GDF SUEZ, the board recognised the company’s commitment to voluntarily enhance a range of fire protection measures on site since the blaze was extinguished.

“What we’ve done and got on with is ways to improve (our fire protection) – god forbid it would happen again,” Mr Kouts said.

“Yes, there have been lessons learnt on how we can do management procedures better.”

Mr Kouts reiterated a previously made apology on behalf of the company for the impact of the incident on the Latrobe Valley community.

“We didn’t cause the event; we too have had to work through this, so we understand the frustration particularly during the fire, but it is also important that at some point we’ve got to move on, and that’s been our game plan.”