Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report
Overview of the inquiry’s findings and recommendations regarding fire risk management and response at the Hazelwood mine.
The Hazelwood open cut coal mine was ignited by bushfire ember attack on a day of extreme bushfire conditions on 9 February 2014 and burned for over 45 days, being declared under control on 11 March, and then declared safe on 25 March 2014. Although the fire was confined to worked-out areas of the mine, and did not interrupt the operation of the power station, it resulted in a serious health and environmental incident that impacted on residents of Morwell over the fire’s duration and beyond. The fire was the largest and longest-burning mine fire experienced in the Latrobe Valley, and created a formidable challenge both to the fire services of GDF Suez, the mine’s operator, and the Country Fire Authority.
The Victorian government instituted a commission of inquiry in March 2014. The commission sat for more than 3 weeks of public hearings in Morwell in late May and June 2014, and delivered its report in late August 2014.
The inquiry canvassed both the causes of, and firefighting response to, the fire, as well as the community health and environmental responses during and after the fire. The report made the following key findings and recommendations regarding fire risk management and response at the Hazelwood mine:
- GDF Suez’s fire prevention infrastructure in the disused parts of the mine, and its initial response to fire, were found to have been inadequate. In particular, its risk assessments had focussed largely on the risk of a direct fire front and did not adequately address the risk of mass ember attack into the mine. The commission recommended that GDF Suez carry out more extensive risk assessments and revise its emergency response plans and procedures.
- There were shortcomings in the communications between fire services and GDF Suez. On 8 February 2014, a computer model showing significant threat to the Hazelwood mine was provided to GDF Suez, but its personnel did not fully understand the model’s significance. The commission recommended that, for future incidents, emergency services personnel should set up integrated incident management teams with essential industry providers.
- A transfer of oversight of OHS matters in Victorian mines, from the state mining regulator to the Victorian Workcover Authority (“VWA”), in 2008, had resulted in a gap in regulatory oversight of fire risk in Victorian mines, and a loss of relevant expertise and knowledge. The commission recommended that the State government ensure that the necessary expertise is acquired both by its mine licensing authorities and the VWA.
- While the commission noted that rehabilitation of worked out areas of open cut mines is routinely used as a fire prevention method, it found that the prospective rehabilitation of the mine would be complex and costly. It therefore declined to make any specific recommendations about rehabilitation.
The issues canvassed before the commission are symptomatic of the recurring bushfire risks affecting energy infrastructure in many parts of rural and regional Australia, as was also borne out by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and the subsequent royal commission and class action proceedings.
The incoming Victorian ALP government has committed to ‘fast track’ adoption of the Commission’s recommendations ahead of the 2015/16 bushfire season, and has also announced that it will reopen the commission of inquiry to inquire into a reported spike in deaths, and to consider options for the mine’s rehabilitation.