Coalmine fires and other disasters predicted by State government report

Coalmine fires and other disasters predicted by State government report

03 May 2014

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Australia — The Victorian government has been warned that mine failures in the Latrobe Valley, where a coal fire shrouded Morwell in smoke in February, are almost certain to happen every year.

Land slips at Latrobe Valley open-cut coalmines can also cause ”multiple fatalities”, shut down crucial economic infrastructure and devastate the local environment, according to the Emergency Risks in Victoria report, released by the government last month.

BusinessDay can reveal that the government has been sitting on a separate report into Latrobe Valley mine wall safety since before Christmas.

February’s fire at Hazelwood was caused by a bushfire, not a wall collapse, but the report warns that the Latrobe Valley coalmines ”introduce an additional fire risk”.

Hazelwood burned for more than a month, prompting local residents affected by smoke and ash to complain of nausea, headaches and sore eyes.

The report warns that the annual likelihood of a medium impact mine failure is close to 100 per cent – higher than other emergencies including storm, bushfire, marine pollution and heatwave – while the annual likelihood of an extreme impact or ”worst case scenario” mine failure is about 1 per cent.

Of the potential emergencies considered in the report, a locust plague or other insect pest outbreak is rated most likely to occur, but with the lowest impact on the state, while a hazardous materials disaster – such as a chemical spill or fire – is least likely but most dangerous. A hazardous materials disaster could result in ”human injury, illness and death”, and cause property damage, pollution and economic loss.

Other risks canvassed include flood, plant disease, earthquake, a fuel shortage and the failure of Victoria’s transport system.

A ”transport infrastructure emergency” would risk ”causing death and injury” and the economic consequences of a disrupted transport system ”could be high”.

The report points out that Victoria’s trouble-prone mines, which provide coal to nearby electricity plants, can be ”in close proximity to town centres, major built infrastructure (road, rail, power, gas, etc) and sensitive natural environments”.

Mine safety in the Latrobe Valley has been under close scrutiny since 2007, when a large mine wall failure in Yallourn led to the Latrobe River flooding the mine.

The report cites two additional incidents: at Hazelwood in 2011, which closed the Princes Highway for seven months, and at Yallourn in 2012, when an embankment failed, leading to the Morwell River flooding the mine.

Following the 2007 Yallourn disaster, an inquiry by the Mining Warden found that the government should set up a permanent Technical Review Board to advise the industry on mine stability.

The board, made up of mining experts, issued a scathing report in June last year warning that ”brown coalmine stability has reached a serious state”.

Electricity was privatised in 1993, minimising the role of the State Electricity Commission, and the board found that since then ”there appears to have been a significant reduction in the scope, depth and extent” of the skills needed to keep mines safe.

”Furthermore, mine operators have become conditioned to risk and are normalising risk (that is, some risks are now viewed as ‘normal, to be expected’) and the risk acceptance criteria and risk appetite of the present owners are higher than that of the SECV.”

In a follow-up letter to then-energy minister Nicholas Kotsiras, sent in May last year, board chairman Jim Galvin said progress was being made and welcomed the government’s decision to spend $4.2 million to fix unstable mines.

However, the board’s 2012-13 report has been produced but not published. It is believed it shows that mine stability has improved, but there is still more work to be done.

Meanwhile, the inquiry into the Hazelwood fire is due to report to the government by August 31.

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