Australia — WATER pipes meant to dampen exposed coal in case of fire were not in place when a Victorian coal mine caught alight, an inquiry has heard.
THE pipes were only replaced while firefighters battled a 45-day fire at the Hazelwood coal mine, which shrouded the town of Morwell in smoke and ash. Peter Rozen, counsel assisting an inquiry into the fire, said pipes on the northern batters had originally been removed because they were corroded.
“The more important question is why the pipes were not replaced once they were removed,” Mr Rozen said in his closing submission on Tuesday.
The inquiry also heard the owners of the mine, GDF Suez, had shown an “air of injured surprise” that a bushfire had got into the mine.
Melinda Richards SC, another counsel assisting the inquiry, said Morwell was a notoriously bushfire-prone part of Victoria.
“It was an entirely foreseeable event and it was one that should have been planned for,” Ms Richards said.
Mr Rozen said GDF Suez had ignored a report after a 2008 fire that recommended a risk assessment of the non-operational areas of the mine.
He said the 2014 fire might not have occurred if the risk assessment had been done and proper measures put in place to prevent future fires.
Rachel Doyle SC, representing GDF Suez, said the company had been the only ones interviewed at the inquiry who had shown a willingness to make changes to make sure the fire didn’t happen again.
She also said evidence presented about occupational health and safety at the mine was inconsistent, and other witnesses had been “shifting the goalposts”.
United Firefighters Union secretary Peter Marshall said firefighters at the mine worked up to 22 hour shifts in dirty uniforms.
He also said the Victorian fire services ignored firefighters’ concerns about the levels of carbon monoxide to which the community was exposed.
Ms Richards said it was “perplexing” why a week into the blaze, the Department of Health and the Environment Protection Authority raised the community carbon monoxide exposure levels above what firefighters were allowed.
“It remains completely unclear why the community should tolerate exposure standards that would not be tolerated by firefighters,” Ms Richards said.
Environment Victoria’s Lisa Nichols said the regulation of mine safety was too lax, with Victoria’s regulatory bodies lacking the expertise necessary to keep mine operators to a standard.
“There is a vacuum here that has had very real consequences and needs to be addressed,” Ms Nichols said.