The Hazelwood mine fire

The Hazelwood Mine Fire inquiry has made 18 recommendations to the state government and mine operator GDF Suez following the largest and longest burning mine fire that has ever occurred in the Latrobe Valley, blanketing the town of Morwell in smoke, ash and carbon monoxide, and causing in excess of $100 million in costs.

“The Hazelwood mine fire was a foreseeable risk that slipped through the cracks between regulatory agencies,” the Inquiry board said. “This reality must be confronted if similar incidents are to be avoided in the future.”

GDF Suez was criticised for not acting on the foreseeable fire risk.

“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,” the board said. “Yet it appears they were not foreseen.

“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,” the board continued. “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.”

The report’s recommendations include that Victoria enact legislation to require integrated fire management planning; equip itself to undertake rapid air quality monitoring including PM2.5, and develop a community engagement model for emergency management. It also recommended that GDF Suez undertake a risk assessment of fire likelihood and consequences and investigate the most effective protection for exposed coal surfaces.

Rehabilitation not adequately addressed

Environment Victoria welcomed the release of the report, but said mine rehabilitation measures had not been adequately addressed.

“The recommendations that relate to fire prevention are a strong starting point for reforming what has clearly been an inadequate system, but the report does not adequately encourage accelerating mine rehabilitation as a way of protecting communities from future fires,” Environment Victoria Safe Climate campaign manager Dr Nicholas Aberle said.

“All experts during the hearings agreed that rehabilitation is the most effective fire prevention method, and prevention is better than cure. Given this we are disappointed that there are no specific recommendations to accelerate rehabilitation efforts.”

Voices of the Valley President Wendy Farmer called for a clear timeline for site remediation.

“The recommendations are disappointing regarding mine remediation,” she said. “Clearly the disused parts of the mine where there are uncovered coal faces need to be properly rehabilitated to ensure that these areas don’t pose a fire risk. We want to see a clear timeline and goals for this process, and believe that it should be commenced as soon as possible.”

Dr Aberle also said that evidence from the government and GDF Suez showed that the current $15 million rehabilitation bond was not sufficient for remediation.

“With no recommendation to review the rehabilitation bond, GDF Suez will continue to have little incentive to speed up their rehabilitation,” he said. “The Government should be requesting that the Auditor General’s office assess the potential financial liability on the public purse, and environmental hazards to nearby communities of an unrehabilitated mine site.

“That this disaster took place shows that much needs to change in the way coal mines are operated, and this report has laid a good foundation for reform. We look forward to seeing commitments from both the Government and GDF Suez to implement the recommendations and accelerating rehabilitation of the mine site.”

All recommendations

Recommendations to the State

  1. The State empower and require the Auditor-General or another appropriate agency, to: oversee the implementation of these recommendations and the commitments made by the State and GDF Suez during this Inquiry; and report publicly every year for the next three years on the progress made in implementing recommendations and commitments.
  2. The State establish, for any future incident, integrated incident management teams with GDF Suez and other Victorian essential industry providers, to: require that emergency services personnel work with GDF Suez and other appropriate essential industry providers; and implement the Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System.
  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.
  4. The State: bring forward the commencement date of s.16 of the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Amendment Act 2014 (Vic), to facilitate the requirement that approved work plans specifically address fire prevention, mitigation and suppression; and acquire the expertise necessary to monitor and enforce compliance with fire risk measures adopted by the Victorian coal mining industry under both the mine licensing and occupational health and safety regimes.
  5. The State equip itself to undertake rapid air quality monitoring in any location in Victoria, to: collect all relevant data, including data on PM2.5, carbon monoxide and ozone; and ensure this data is used to inform decision-making within 24 hours of the incident occurring.
  6. The State take the lead in advocating for a national compliance standard for PM2.5.
  7. The State review and revise the community carbon monoxide response protocol and the firefighter carbon monoxide response protocol, to: ensure both protocols are consistent with each other; ensure both protocols include assessment methods and trigger points for specific responses; ensure GDF Suez and other appropriate essential industry providers are required to adopt and apply the firefighter carbon monoxide protocol; and inform all firefighters about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, and in particular highlight the increased risks for those with health conditions and those who are pregnant.
  8. The State review and revise the Bushfire Smoke Protocol and the PM2.5 Health Protection Protocol, to: ensure both protocols are consistent with each other; and ensure both protocols include assessment methods and trigger points for specific responses.
  9. The State develop and widely disseminate an integrated State Smoke Guide, to: incorporate the proposed State Smoke Plan for the management of public health impacts from large scale, extended smoke events; include updated Bushfire Smoke, carbon monoxide and PM2.5 protocols; and provide practical advice and support materials to employers, communities and individuals on how to minimise the harmful effects of smoke.
  10. The State should continue the long-term health study, and: extend the study to at least 20 years; appoint an independent board, which includes Latrobe Valley community representatives, to govern the study; and direct that the independent board publish regular progress reports.
  11. The State review and revise its communication strategy, to: ensure all emergency response agencies have, or have access to, the capability and resources needed for effective and rapid public communications during an emergency; and ensure, where appropriate, that private operators of essential infrastructure are included in the coordination of public communications during an emergency concerning that infrastructure.
  12. The State, led by Emergency Management Victoria, develop a community engagement model for emergency management to ensure all State agencies and local governments engage with communities and already identified trusted networks as an integral component of emergency management planning.

Recommendations to GDF Suez

  1. GDF Suez revise its Emergency Response Plan, to: require an increased state of readiness on days of Total Fire Ban; require pre-establishment of an Emergency Command Centre; require pre-positioning of an accredited Incident Controller as Emergency Commander; and require any persons nominated as Emergency Commander to have incident controller accreditation and proficiency in the use of the Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System.
  2. GDF Suez establish enhanced back-up power supply arrangements that do not depend wholly on mains power, to: ensure that the Emergency Command Centre can continue to operate if mains power is lost; and ensure that the reticulated fire services water system can operate with minimal disruption if mains power is lost.
  3. GDF Suez: conduct, assisted by an independent consultant, a risk assessment 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; prepare an implementation plan that ensures the most effective and reasonably practicable controls are in place to eliminate or reduce the risk of fire; and implement the plan.
  4. GDF Suez: review its ‘Mine Fire Service Policy and Code of Practice’ so that it reflects industry best practice and ensures that, by taking a risk management approach, it is suitable for fire prevention, mitigation and suppression in all parts of the Hazelwood mine; and incorporate the revised ‘Mine Fire Service Policy and Code of Practice’ into the approved work plan for the Hazelwood mine.
  5. GDF Suez adopt and apply the firefighter carbon monoxide response protocol.
  6. GDF Suez improve its crisis management communication strategy for the Hazelwood mine in line with international best practice.

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