Australia — A FIRE in a Victorian coal mine that burned for 45 days was foreseeable but the mine operator was not prepared for the blaze, an inquiry has found.
HAZELWOOD mine operator GDF Suez fell short of its obligations to neighbouring communities by not properly identifying the hazards of a fire starting in the worked-out areas of the coalmine, an inquiry into the blaze found. The company failed to take reasonable measures to eliminate or reduce the health and safety risks associated with a fire in the worked-out areas, the inquiry’s report released on Tuesday said.
It also failed to carry out a risk assessment that may have avoided or reduced the severity of the blaze that shrouded Morwell in smoke and ash.
The fire was sparked by bushfire embers on February 9 but there was no preventative measure in place to prevent the area being hit by an ember attack.
The Latrobe Valley, where the mine is located, is particularly vulnerable to extreme bushfire conditions, the report said, and coalmine fires can spread extremely quickly.
“Contrary to suggestions that the Hazelwood mine fire was the perfect storm of events, all of the factors contributing to the ignition and spread of the fire were foreseeable,” the report said.
“Yet it appears they were not foreseen.”
The Hazelwood mine fire inquiry report, which makes 18 recommendations, said the plan the company did have relied on the Country Fire Authority being able to respond quickly.
GDF Suez made a fire plan on February 7 when a total fire ban was declared but failed to update it later that day when a bushfire started near the mine.
All but one of the GDF Suez workers nominated as emergency commander in the emergency response plan were out of Morwell on holiday, the report said.
This was despite the company being shown modelling about the risk of fire spreading into the mine.
It took GDF Suez more than an hour to activate its emergency response after the fire was reported, nobody called triple-zero and no request was made for CFA resources until several hours after the fire started.
“The inability of GDF Suez to effectively suppress the Hazelwood mine fire during the initial stages was due in large part to the mine operator being inadequately prepared to manage the fire,” the report said.
The six-week blaze was a major complex fire emergency and a public health emergency, the report said.
Morwell residents were exposed to high levels of air pollution because the Department of Health was slow to respond to the smoke from the blaze.
What they were being told by government departments did not match with what they were experiencing and there was a “lack of empathy”, the report said.
The State Control Centre’s request for advice and support from the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) came too late and the agency was ill-equipped to respond rapidly.
Low-cost, highly mobile equipment could have been used in the first week when the highest air pollution concentrations were likely to have affected the community, the report said.
During the course of the blaze, there were three key periods of significantly elevated pollution levels.
Readings for PM2.5, particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometres of less, were “well above the advisory standard” during this period, the report said.
On February 16, the average air quality reading for this type of particulate matter was 28 times the advisory standard.
Carbon monoxide levels were also significantly elevated.
The report estimates the fire cost the state, the community and mine operators more than $100 million.
The report, tabled in parliament on Tuesday, recommends GDF Suez improve its emergency response plan and implement a plan to reduce the risk of fire.
It also says a long-term health study being undertaken by the health department in the area should be extended to 20 years.