DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS

LAND USE PLANNING

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 mine.

Most notably, there is 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 around a coal mine post-date the approval (in the 1940s) of a new open cut mine adjacent to Morwell. The Latrobe City Council is powerless to enforce this buffer zone within the boundaries of the mine licence.

In addition, there are three timber plantations within 1,000 metres of the mine licence area, each capable of catching fire and throwing embers into the Hazelwood mine. Although the Latrobe Planning Scheme currently provides that a permit is required for timber plantations this close to the mine, for historical reasons and other reasons that are difficult to remedy, each of these plantations operates 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.’68 Information subsequently provided to the Board by the plantation owners paints a more complex picture in relation to both the establishment of the plantations and the risk they pose. 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 was unable to assess the relative fire risk posed by eucalypt plantations and remnant vegetation containing mature trees. It accepts that both contribute to the risk of a bushfire spreading into an open cut coal mine such as the Hazelwood mine. As Mr Incoll observed, even if the plantations could be removed ‘by the wave of a magic wand’, there are numerous windbreaks and belts of remnant roadside vegetation within spotting distance that still pose a hazard during the passage of high intensity rural fires.69

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. The Board endorses the observations of Mr Lapsley that fire management needs to be ‘front and centre’ in land use planning decisions.70

The Board considers that the Minister for Planning, advised by the Department of Transport Planning and Local Infrastructure and the Latrobe City Council, should investigate amending the Latrobe Planning Scheme to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, it minimises the risk of embers from external rural fires, in particular in timber plantations, entering open cut coal mines in the Latrobe Valley. This should occur as part of the regular review of the Latrobe Planning Scheme that is due to be completed in 2014.

The Board has not included a recommendation on this issue because is not directly within the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference, the Board did not hear opinion evidence from appropriate experts, the evidence that touched on this issue was not examined in depth, and the Board has not been able to effectively consider all options relevant to this issue.

INTEGRATED FIRE MANAGEMENT PLANNING

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.

Establishing clear responsibility for the implementation of plans

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. The plans are being developed with the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders. However, there is a fundamental weakness with the plans—it is unclear who is responsible for their implementation. Accordingly, no one is ensuring or monitoring their implementation. Counsel Assisting the Inquiry described this dilemma as follows:

There is a significant issue on the evidence concerning the effective implementation of these plans. In fact the evidence suggests that the plans are not implemented at all. Nor have they been reviewed by the affected agencies to check that the suggested treatments are possible or within the appropriate jurisdiction.71

The Board endorses this view. It is concerned that the plans that have emerged from the process of integrated fire management planning are of limited practical impact.

To ensure that integrated fire management plans are implemented, the Board considers that there must be clarity about who is responsible for their implementation. Mr Lapsley has suggested that the first step is to modernise the legislative basis for fire management planning. The Board endorses this view. The establishment of clear statutory responsibility for the implementation of integrated fire management plans would create an opportunity to clarify the responsibilities for implementation of these plans at the municipal, regional and state level.

The Board considers that a great deal has been achieved in integrated fire management planning but more needs to be done for the Victorian community to gain the full benefit that it offers. The review of emergency management planning raised during the Inquiry by Mr Lapsley is an opportunity to initiate a more collaborative approach to integrated fire management planning that directly involves those people responsible for fire risk management. The intention of this review is to achieve more holistic and coordinated accountability for specific hazards. This planning approach will more closely involve industry, including GDF Suez, during hazard planning.

The evidence has established that the Hazelwood mine and the mine’s regulators are key players currently missing from the integrated fire management planning process. It is crucial that members of the community, government and industry who are responsible for fire risk management and who live with the risk of fire within the Latrobe Valley, play a role in the development and implementation of fire risk management plans. This may take the form of providing advice about the nature of a fire risk or the means to control the risk. Establishing a clear line of sight to the responsible regulators for integrated fire management planning should ensure that the actions in the plans are monitored and implemented.

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.

RECOMMENDATION 3

The State enact legislation to:

  • require Integrated Fire Management Planning; and
  • authorise the Emergency Management Commissioner to develop and implement regional and municipal fire management plans.