Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague to head Hazelwood mine fire inquiry

Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague to head Hazelwood mine fire inquiry

12 March 2014

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Australia — The former Supreme Court Justice who headed the Black Saturday Royal Commission will lead the independent inquiry into the month-long Hazelwood mine fire.

Premier Denis Napthine announced on Tuesday that Justice Bernard Teague, AO, would head the inquiry, which will investigate how the blaze started, the emergency response and whether the regulatory requirements for the mine were stringent enough.

“Our government wants this inquiry to fully and appropriately examine all aspects of this fire,” Dr Napthine said.

The announcement comes as Morwell residents were again told to shelter from heavy smoke on Tuesday.

The Environment Protection Authority said visibility in Morwell and Morwell South would be “dramatically reduced” due to high particle concentrations in the air.

But a spokesman at the Hazelwood incident control centre said despite Tuesday’s warm weather and expected strong wind change, the fire at the mine remained under control, and “hopefully it can stay that way”.

The Board of Inquiry- made up of three members- will begin work at the end of March and will be asked to submit its report to the government by the end of August.

Dr Napthine said the findings would be made public. Its Secretariat will be based in Morwell- which has been blanketed in smoke for a month.

Dr Napthine said the inquiry’s board would determine whether there were public meetings- but he expected this would be the case.

The inquiry will also probe whether communities were given adequate information about the fire, which has been burning since February 9.

Health and environmental responses will also be investigated- although the terms of reference have not yet been finalised.

Dr Napthine said the Board of Inquiry would have coercive powers similar to a Royal Commission.

“These include the powers to compel to attend and give evidence under oath, the power to order the production of documents, the power to hold public hearings.”

He said witnesses before the inquiry would be given the same protections as those before the Supreme Court.

Attorney-General Robert Clark said the board would have powers to compel mine operator GDF Suez to give evidence. If they refused, they could be penalised and referred to the Supreme Court.

The Hazelwood mine fire has been burning for more than a month, sending thick plumes of foul smelling, black smoke into the surrounding Morwell community. Vulnerable residents in parts of Morwell South are still being advised to stay away from the town to avoid the smoke. The fire, which started on February 9, was brought under control on the weekend.

Fire services commissioner Craig Lapsley said on Monday that the fire was under control, but said the smoke was may not clear up for up to week or until decent rain.

Dr Napthine thanked the career and volunteer firefighters form across Australia who worked on the “challenging” fire.

“We recognise that while the fire is now under control there is significant, ongoing impacts particularly in the Morwell area.”

Deputy Premier Peter Ryan said the government would announce a “basket of initiatives” to demonstrate that the region “was open to business”.

The terms of reference will be finalised following consultation with Justice Teague and the Solicitor General.

Opposition leader Daniel Andrews welcomed the inquiry and said it must be made public.

“It will be an opportunity to get to the bottom of just how botched Denis Napthine’s efforts have been,” he said

“People in Morwell were left afraid, uncertain and abandoned by this government. To set up a health assessment centre nearly two full weeks after the fire begun, is wrong.”

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