FIRE RISK MANAGEMENT

In addition to inquiring into and reporting on the response to the Hazelwood mine fire, the Board was tasked with assessing the adequacy and effectiveness of the application and administration of relevant regulatory regimes in relation to the risk of fire at the Hazelwood mine.

Fire risk management currently occurs at state, regional and local levels.

FIRE RISK MANAGEMENT AT THE STATE LEVEL

The State manages fire risk, relevant to the Hazelwood mine in two distinct ways:

  • through the emergency services agencies that are responsible for responding to and protecting property from fire, which operate under an overarching state-level emergency management framework
  • through agencies which directly regulate coal mines and are able to influence the fire management policies adopted by mine operators.

Emergency Management

Victoria has a multi-agency framework for emergency management, some elements of which are legislated and other elements of which are established by agreement.

From 1 July 2014, new governance arrangements came into effect, including the creation of the role of Emergency Management Commissioner, which succeeds the role of the Fire Services Commissioner. The Emergency Management Commissioner will have a broader oversight, control and coordination role in relation to emergencies.

Under the emergency management arrangements in place at the time of the Hazelwood mine fire, the Fire Services Commissioner had overall control of response activities to a ‘major fire’ in any area of Victoria. The Fire Services Commissioner is supported by the CFA, the MFB and DEPI, depending on the location of the fire. The CFA is responsible for responding to fires on private land within the country area of Victoria, such as the Hazelwood mine.

Over recent years, the CFA has invested in improved firefighting capability in the Latrobe Valley through the acquisition of aerial appliances, modernisation of its firefighting fleet and recruitment of additional firefighters at local CFA brigades. Local CFA brigades comprise both career and volunteer firefighters. When a fire situation escalates or resources are allocated to other fires, brigades may be called in from across the Latrobe Valley.

Victoria adopts a three-tiered approach to emergency management with State, Regional and Incident Controllers responsible for the command and control of different emergency response teams.

Emergency response plans are also prepared at each of these levels.

The allocation of resources for response to fires is governed by Standard Operating Procedures jointly issued by the Fire Services Commissioner, CFA, MFB and DEPI. These procedures aim to ensure that there are Incident Management Teams, headed by an Incident Controller, pre-positioned to manage major bushfires or potential major bushfires. The Incident Controller and Incident Management Team manage bushfire response activities from Incident Control Centres across the State.

The State is able to engage with support agencies and relevant community members in planning and managing an emergency by forming an Incident Emergency Management Team. An Incident Emergency Management Team brings together those responsible for command, control and coordination at the incident level, and community members and other relevant agencies. The Incident Emergency Management Team provides the forum for the Incident Controller to be informed about the likely impacts and consequences of an emergency and enables all members to contribute to the development of the overall incident strategy.

These arrangements generally functioned well during the Hazelwood mine fire, although the Board has made recommendations for improvement, noting that the emergency management framework is already undergoing significant reform.

Important background regarding the emergency management framework and a discussion of the adequacy and effectiveness of State planning for the Hazelwood mine fire can be found in Chapter 2.2 of the report.

Regulation of Victorian coal mines

Regulation of Victorian coal mines is complex and has evolved considerably over time.

The principal regulatory mechanisms that govern the risk and prevention of fire at the Hazelwood mine are mine licensing laws, which are administered and enforced by the Earth Resources Regulation Branch of the Department of State Development, Business and Innovation (the Mining Regulator) and occupational health and safety (OHS) laws, which are administered and enforced by the Earth Resources Unit of the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA).

From 1 January 2008, responsibility for oversight of OHS matters in Victorian mines transferred from the Mining Regulator to VWA. From this date, the Mining Regulator no longer considered itself to have any role in regulating fire risk at the Hazelwood mine.

The Mining Regulator and VWA each adopted a narrow reading of the statutory regime underlying their respective areas of responsibility. Contrary to arrangements between the Mining Regulator and VWA, which contemplated collaboration and consultation on areas of overlapping responsibility, such as public safety risks, the agencies operated in silos. The Board was concerned that the manner in which the transition for OHS responsibility to VWA was effected meant that expertise and knowledge relevant to assessing fire risk at the Hazelwood mine was potentially lost.

The combination of these factors resulted in a gap in regulation of the Hazelwood mine in respect of fire risks with the potential to impact on Morwell and surrounding communities, such as that which manifested in 2014. The Hazelwood mine fire was a foreseeable risk that slipped through the cracks between regulatory agencies. This reality must be confronted if similar incidents are to be avoided in the future.

The Mining Regulator doubted whether it had the necessary legislative power to regulate fire risk in Victorian mines, notwithstanding that the Regulator’s statutory objectives include ensuring that the health and safety of the public is protected in relation to work being done under a mining licence. The position adopted by the Mining Regulator is not, in the view of the Board, the only interpretation open of the Mining Regulator’s regulatory power. This uncertainty is likely to be resolved when legislative amendments enacted in February 2014 come into effect.

The Board was also concerned by aspects of VWA’s oversight of fire prevention and mitigation practices at the Hazelwood mine. In carrying out routine audits of the Hazelwood mine’s fire management policies, VWA appears to have placed undue focus on administrative or procedural compliance with OHS regulations, rather than ensuring substantive compliance. The Board considers that effective regulation must focus on substance rather than form.

Further, when it came to ensuring GDF Suez had adequately addressed fire risks associated with the Hazelwood mine that had the potential to significantly impact the community, but did not necessarily place workers’ lives at risk, VWA did not intervene despite these kinds of risk being entirely foreseeable. VWA justified this approach by its overall strategy of focusing its limited resources on hazards that represent the greatest risk of multiple worker fatalities.

The principle underlying the OHS regime is that the primary obligation to manage risk at a work site rests with the employer. There are necessary constraints on how a government agency can allocate its resources, particularly when VWA is responsible for 250,000 Victorian workplaces. However, the Hazelwood mine fire has demonstrated that there are consequences of real import where the approach to regulation is overly passive.

The Board considers that the Mining Regulator and VWA both have a role in regulating fire risk in the Victorian mining sector. In order to fulfil their shared responsibilities effectively, the Mining Regulator and VWA also need to be adequately equipped with staff that have the necessary expertise to monitor and enforce compliance with measures to mitigate fire risk.

Chapter 3.2 of the report contains an explanation of the regulatory regimes governing Victorian mines, as well as an analysis of the adequacy and effectiveness of those regimes and their administration and enforcement by government agencies.

FIRE RISK MANAGEMENT AT THE REGIONAL LEVEL

At a regional and municipal level, there are a number of regulatory mechanisms in place to address fire risk. Obstacles have inhibited each of these mechanisms from effectively mitigating fire risk at the Hazelwood mine.

Land use planning

A principal means by which fire risk can be managed at the municipal level is through land use planning schemes. Land use planning can play a significant role in the management of fire risk by regulating how land may or may not be used or developed. Existing patterns of land use in the Latrobe Valley pose some challenges for the mitigation of fire risk. The Latrobe Valley has inherited land use planning decisions that have resulted in a significant gap between the fire protection policies and strategies outlined in the Latrobe Planning Scheme and the reality of land use in the vicinity of the Hazelwood mine.

The Latrobe City Council is the authority responsible for the administration and enforcement of the Latrobe Planning Scheme, which comprises both state-wide and local planning provisions.

The Latrobe Planning Scheme applies a number of strategies to manage bushfire risk and inappropriate development with respect to coal mines in the Latrobe Valley. However, these strategies are limited by the fact they only operate prospectively and have little capacity to deal with past decisions in relation to existing uses of land.

Most notably, there is no buffer zone between the Hazelwood mine and the town of Morwell. The implementation of the buffer zone requirements post-date the approval (in the 1940s) of a new open cut mine adjacent to Morwell. The Latrobe City Council is powerless to enforce any buffer zone within the boundaries of the mine licence. Under legislation, this is the province of the Mining Regulator.

The Board’s attention was also drawn to the existence of three timber plantations within 1,000 metres of the mine licence area. In a landscape that has largely been cleared of native vegetation, timber plantations are a potential source of fuel for a bushfire and can create embers that are carried long distances.

Although the Latrobe Planning Scheme currently provides that a permit is required for timber plantations this close to the mine, for historical reasons each of these plantations exists without a permit.

GDF Suez submitted that the establishment of timber plantations close to the Hazelwood mine represented a fundamental failure in appropriate land use planning in the Valley. Information provided by the plantation owners after the conclusion of the Inquiry’s public hearings paints a more complex picture in relation to both the establishment of the plantations and the risk they pose to the mine. These plantations do not represent the entire potential source of embers spotting into the mine. Other sources include trees and other vegetation, grasslands and trees planted on roads, and nearby rural land.

The Board agrees that it is not desirable that timber plantations be established in close proximity to an open cut coal mine without consideration of fire risk management, nor is it appropriate to extend an open cut coal mine towards existing timber plantations, apparently without regard to fire risk. There is considerable scope for improvement in the way that land use planning in the Latrobe Valley manages the risk of fire, particularly in the vicinity of open cut coal mines.

Integrated fire management planning

Integrated fire management planning was introduced following the 2003 Esplin Report. It involves the collaboration of community, public and private land owners, utility providers, the State, councils, and industry. The development of integrated fire management plans in the Latrobe Valley presents an opportunity to recognise that there are current sources of risk across the Latrobe Valley landscape, such as pre-existing plantations and roadside vegetation, and that these risks need to be managed with the most effective risk treatments available.

Fire risk management planning is currently occurring at the state, regional and municipal levels, and there is consistency between plans in the recognition of priority risks and assets.

At the regional level, the Gippsland Regional Strategic Fire Management Plan identifies coal mines in the region as assets at extreme risk of fire from external fire events, which have the potential to disrupt power supplies to the national grid. The regional plan identifies existing treatments that address this risk, including legislative controls, emergency management plans, on site firefighting resources
and regulatory planning.

At the municipal level, the Latrobe City Council has produced a Municipal Fire Management Plan (as a sub-plan of the Latrobe Municipal Emergency Management Plan), which includes fire history information, assets at risk and control measures. The municipal plan’s treatments for protecting assets are more operational, for example, the treatments listed for the Hazelwood mine include routine asset site maintenance and land use planning considerations for surrounding land use.

Regional and municipal plans are being developed with the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders. However, the Hazelwood mine and the mine’s regulators are key players currently missing from the integrated fire management planning process. Further, the content of the plans, including the treatment of risks, is not known to the agencies that have oversight in those areas. Without an approach that involves the active engagement of all relevant entities, integrated fire management plans will not be adequate or effective.

There is a more fundamental weakness with the regional and municipal plans–it is unclear who is responsible for their implementation, and consequently, no one has taken responsibility. This must be addressed if integrated fire management planning is to be effective.

Legislation is required to give greater force to integrated fire management planning, and to clarify who is responsible for implementation of the plans. The establishment of clear statutory responsibility for the implementation of integrated fire management plans at the municipal, regional and state level is needed.

Establishing a clear line of sight to the responsible regulators for integrated fire management planning should ensure that the actions in the plans are implemented and monitored.

There are a number of problems with the Gippsland Regional Strategic Fire Management Plan. In these circumstances, the Board considers that the regional plan should be reviewed.

The adequacy and effectiveness of regulation of fire risk at the regional and municipal level is considered in detail in Chapter 3.1 of the report.

FIRE RISK MANAGEMENT AT THE HAZELWOOD MINE

Fire is an ever-present risk in a brown coal mine. The outbreak of fire can spread extremely quickly. It is therefore critical that there are effective means of both preventing the outbreak of fire and being in a position to rapidly extinguish fires that do occur.

GDF Suez has adopted a range of policies and procedures directed to the prevention, mitigation and suppression of fires. These have evolved considerably over time, and have been enhanced as a result of a process of investigating and reviewing fire incidents at the mine and ensuring that recommendations arising from those investigations are implemented where appropriate.

As a consequence of this process of continual improvement, the fire prevention and preparedness measures at the Hazelwood mine are well-suited to most kinds of mine fires. 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.

Contrary to suggestions that the Hazelwood mine fire was the ‘perfect storm of events’, all of the factors contributing to the ignition and spread of the fire were foreseeable. Yet it appears they were not foreseen. The Board notes that as significant as the fire was, conditions on the day of the fire’s ignition could have been worse and the consequences of the fire could have been more severe.

A number of previous fires at the Hazelwood mine bear similarities to aspects of the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire. Fires occurred in December 2005 and September 2008, which took hold in worked out areas of the mine. Ease of access, location and reliability of water supply in worked out areas of the mine were identified as potential vulnerabilities. An incident investigation report into the September 2008 fire recommended that a risk assessment, including a cost/benefit analysis, should be undertaken concerning the risk of fire in worked out areas to determine if further prevention work was required.

This risk assessment was never undertaken.

The failure to conduct a proper risk assessment meant that an opportunity to substantially improve fire protection measures in the worked out areas of the mine and potentially avoid or reduce the severity of the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire was lost.

In not properly identifying hazards associated with a fire in the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine and the risks to the Morwell and surrounding communities, GDF Suez fell short of its obligations under OHS laws. GDF Suez also failed to adopt reasonably practicable risk control measures to eliminate or reduce the health and safety risks associated with a fire in the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine.

GDF Suez’s main strategy for preventing the outbreak of a mine fire as a result of an external fire has been vegetation management in the rural land surrounding the Hazelwood mine. This can be an effective strategy against a direct firefront, but it does not address the risk of mass ember attack into the Hazelwood mine from external sources resulting in widespread simultaneous ignitions.

The Board heard expert evidence that the Hazelwood mine could only be effectively protected from an external ember attack by either wetting down coal faces or covering exposed coal with earth or some other fire retardant substance.

GDF Suez has its own firefighting infrastructure, plant and equipment, as well as personnel and contractors trained in firefighting who can be called upon in the event of an emergency. The Hazelwood mine features a fire service network, consisting of an extensive pipe network powered by a series of electric pumps, which supplies water to sprays, hydrants and tanker filling points throughout the mine. The fire service network functions both as a means of fire prevention, by allowing wetting down of coal faces on days of high fire risk, and of fire response, by providing a supply of water for firefighting hoses, filling tankers and fixed sprays during firefighting.

During the period from around 1994 until around 2007, degraded or leaking pipework was progressively removed from the fire service network in worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine, principally in an area of the northern batters which was significantly affected by the Hazelwood mine fire in 2014. Prior to the Hazelwood mine fire, the pipework had not been replaced and no risk assessment was conducted to determine whether it should have been.

The removal of this pipework meant that large areas of coal were not covered by either earth or water and were completely exposed. So long as these areas were within five minutes travel from a tanker filling point or hydrant manifold, GDF Suez continued to meet the minimum requirements of its own fire management policies. Tanker filling points and hydrant manifolds are much more relevant to fire suppression than prevention, but in any event proved inadequate for that purpose during the Hazelwood mine fire. Limited reticulated water supply in the northern, eastern and south-eastern batters also severely hampered suppression efforts during February 2014, to the point where extensive pipework had to be installed during the fire. CFA volunteers also described problems with locating and accessing tanker filling points and hydrant manifolds.

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.

While rehabilitation is a routine method of covering exposed coal that could be used as a fire prevention method, there are various factors that make progressive rehabilitation a complex, costly and time-consuming exercise. These obstacles are a real impediment to relying on rehabilitation as the primary strategy for fire prevention throughout the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine, although it should be considered as one of the suite of preventive measures available.

There are a range of other potential methods for covering exposed coal in worked out areas of the mine. Clay, a stabilised clay and cement mixture such as ‘shotcrete’, fly ash slurries, foams, gels, organic surfactant materials, polymers and bituminous tar were all raised as potential alternatives to rehabilitation.

Each of these options has advantages and disadvantages. None of the methods appears to have been trialled for this particular application in open cut brown coal mines and may not be suitable for the Hazelwood mine. It is therefore not appropriate for the Board to advocate for any one option without the benefit of proper technical assessment of the feasibility of the measures and a thorough risk assessment that includes a cost/benefit analysis. In reality, the most reasonably practicable control adopted by GDF Suez will probably involve a combination of methods depending on the particular area of the mine.

There are also areas for enhancing fire preparedness measures at the Hazelwood mine. The major area of concern is the lack of back-up power supply or emergency generators available to supplement the mains power supplying the mine, and in particular, pumping stations for the fire service network and the Emergency Command Centre.

The Board considers that existing fire management measures GDF Suez has adopted are deficient in a number of other respects. For example, the vegetation management requirements applying outside the perimeter of the mine do not apply to the worked out areas and mine floor, heightening the risk of fire and hindering access by firefighters; and in worked out areas of the mine where fixed sprays do exist, there is no procedural requirement to wet down coal faces on high fire risk days.

GDF Suez has indicated it will review fire risk in the worked out areas of the mine and has already committed to a range of measures to enhance fire protection. The Board affirms these commitments.

Chapter 3.3 of the report contains a comprehensive discussion of the adequacy and effectiveness of measures taken by GDF Suez to prevent an outbreak of fire in the Hazelwood mine and to mitigate its spread and severity. For an analysis of measures taken by GDF Suez to prepare for and to respond to fire, see Chapter 2.2.