Western Power slammed in pole fire inquiry

Western Power slammed in pole fire inquiry

20 January 2012

published by www.bendigoadvertiser.com.au

Australia — LIVES are being put at risk of bushfire because Western Power has failed miserably to maintain its wooden power poles, according to a powerful parliamentary committee.

The Standing Committee on Public Administration delivered a scathing report today at the end of a two-year inquiry into the utility provider, demanding action immediately by the Government and a complete overhaul of Western Power’s management.

Faulty power poles have been responsible for many devastating fires in WA, including a 2003 fire at Tenterden in the Great Southern, which killed two women.

An Energy Safety report into the 2009 Toodyay bushfire that destroyed 38 homes found it was also started by a power pole fire.

The Upper House committee found Western Power is still the “worst-in-class” in the nation for unassisted wooden power pole failures.

Committee chair Max Trenorden said the inquiry initially examined Western Power’s network of wooden poles but soon found “disturbing” problems in the culture and management of the utility.

“We’re here to inquire on behalf of the ordinary people of Western Australia and we’re now reporting back to the people of Western Australia,” he said in handing down the report today.

“The report questions public safety and value for money.

“It’s about the risk faced by all of us as a result of the poor management of essential public assets by well-paid public sector officials.

“It’s also about gaps in the present regulatory framework of essential public utilities.

“We’re saying all of Western Power should be changed.”

Mr Trenorden said more than 4000 power poles were not on the system and there has been little improvement in wooden power pole inspections.

“The law of averages suggest at least one quarter of the missing 4000 wooden power poles are in high to extreme fire danger areas,” Mr Trenorden said.

“Western Power still lacks adequate wooden power pole service criteria to detect unsafe wooden power poles.”

Mr Trenorden was critical of the level of transparency Western Power promoted, and said the Committee was recommending they be forced to issue an addendum to their 2010-11 Annual Report.

He said the utility had not kept the community or Government fully informed.

“By avoiding accountability to the Parliament, Western Power tries to avoid being accountable to the people of Western Australia, which is just not right,” he said.

The regulation of the utility also came under fire, with the Committee suggesting there is too much ambiguity between the Office of Energy and Safety and the Economic Regulation Authority’s roles in keeping Western Power in check.

“Both regulators have reported to us…how difficult Western Power are to deal with,” Mr Trenorden said.

“Western Power shouldn’t be able to thumb its nose at regulators.

“We need a single agency to keep a level eye over public utilities in the regulatory framework so that the agency also has an enforcement role.”

The Committee recommended the Government take urgent action and make their own inquiries into Western Power and its regulatory framework.

“It is extremely important and I would be very disappointed if it is not actioned upon,” Mr Trenorden said.

“What we need is an urgent paradigm shift, a radical new direction – in effect, a fresh start.”

Mr Trenorden indicated the Committee would work on a follow up report to be released in the next few months.
Opposition energy spokeswoman Kate Doust said the report was “damning” for the State Government.

“It is a very clear failure on the part of the Minister [Peter Collier],” she said.

“He has not addressed any of the issues we have consistently raised with him over the last couple of years particularly about power pole management.

“Now this Government-dominated committee has made a series of highly critical recommendations and commentary about the culture that exists in Western Power, in its management, and also in their failure to respond to the regulators’ requirements.

“Everything that’s done by these utilities, as we now know, has an impact on utility prices. Its up to this Government to make decisions about how they will manage that.”

Western Power managing director Doug Aberle today issued a press release saying the utility had spent $450 million in the past six years on wooden poles alone.

“The safety of West Australians is of paramount concern to everyone who works at Western Power and will continue to be so,” he said.

“We will read this report line by line and consider its recommendations with a view to adopting all that we can.”

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