This Chapter examines the measures taken by GDF Suez to prevent an outbreak of fire in the Hazelwood mine and to mitigate its spread and severity.
As part of its Terms of Reference, the Board of Inquiry has been asked to inquire into and report on the adequacy and effectiveness of any measures implemented by GDF Suez, including consideration of whether GDF Suez:
- implemented the recommendations arising from reviews of previous events, and
- breached or did not comply with the requirements of (or under) any relevant statute or regulation, including any notification or directive given under such statute or regulation and any code of practice, management plan or similar scheme, developed and/or implemented due to such requirements.
This Chapter explores each of these issues in detail.
The Board heard evidence from employees of GDF Suez about fire prevention measures at the Hazelwood mine. Senior representatives from the Earth Resources Regulation Branch of the Department of State Development, Business and Innovation, and the Victorian WorkCover Authority, as well as Victorian WorkCover Authority workplace inspectors, gave evidence during the public hearings.
The Board received numerous submissions from residents of the Latrobe Valley and from community organisations concerned about the adequacy of fire prevention measures and the progress of rehabilitation at the Hazelwood mine. Some of these community witnesses had formerly worked at the Hazelwood mine and were able to provide useful insights into fire prevention practices historically.
Environment Victoria was given leave to appear at the public hearings and made detailed submissions concerning rehabilitation of the Hazelwood mine and the adequacy of the rehabilitation bond required under the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990 (Vic).
The Board of Inquiry engaged Independent expert Professor David Cliff, Professor of Occupational Health and Safety in the Minerals Industry and Director, Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre, at the University of Queensland. Professor Cliff provided expert evidence on the adequacy of fire prevention measures adopted by GDF Suez, whether measures were in accordance with the requirements of the Victorian regulatory regime, and the response of GDF Suez to prior fire incidents relative to occupational health and safety practices prevalent in the mining industry.
Independent expert, Mr Roderic Incoll, Bushfire Risk Consultant, also assisted the Board. Mr Incoll was previously employed by the State Electricity Commission Victoria in a role that involved providing advice on the external threat of bushfires to brown coal mining operations in the Latrobe Valley. Mr Incoll provided advice to the Board about the adequacy of the fire prevention measures taken by GDF Suez.
The Board considers that GDF Suez did not adequately recognise the risk of 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. GDF Suez did not conduct a risk assessment in relation to the risk of a fire in the worked out areas of the mine, despite a recommendation to do so following a fire in the worked out areas in September 2008.
Prior to the Hazelwood mine fire, existing fire prevention measures in the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine were inadequate, with large areas of exposed coal, particularly in the northern batters, not protected by either fixed water sprays or coverage with earth, clay or some other kind of fire retardant. The failure to conduct a proper risk assessment meant that an opportunity to substantially improve fire prevention measures in the worked out areas of the mine, and potentially avoid or reduce the severity of the Hazelwood mine fire, was lost.
There is a range of potential options available to GDF Suez that could significantly reduce the risk of fire in the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine, each of which has advantages and disadvantages.
In order to determine the most effective and practicable combination of fire prevention measures, the Board recommends that GDF Suez conduct a thorough risk assessment in respect of the worked out areas of the Hazelwood mine. Following this assessment, the fire prevention measures identified should be implemented so far as is reasonably practicable, and GDF Suez’s fire management policies revised and updated. Whatever improvements are ultimately adopted, it is clear that doing nothing is not an option if events like the Hazelwood mine fire are to be avoided in the future.