MORE than a month after a fire spread from bushland to the Hazelwood coal mine in the Latrobe Valley, the Victorian Government announced that an independent enquiry would be established to investigate the blaze.
Headed by former Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague, who led the Black Saturday Royal Commission, the Board of Inquiry will investigate the suspected arson that led to the fire reaching the mine
and the emergency response undertaken for the incident, as well examining the bigger picture issue of whether regulatory requirements for the Hazelwood mine were stringent enough.
The investigation would also assess the health and environmental responses to the fire and whether communities had received adequate information.
“Our government wants this inquiry to fully and appropriately examine all aspects of this fire,” Victorian Premier Dr Denis Napthine said.
Hazelwood mine feeds the Hazelwood Power Station which supplies between 20 and 25 per cent of Victoria’s energy requirements; both were purchased from the state government by GDF SUEZ in 1996.
GDF SUEX reported that the fire, which spread into the mine from a local bushfire on 9 February, was present in three levels of a disused part of the mine but had not affected coal winning operations or power generation.
“GDF SUEZ Hazelwood has a comprehensive fire prevention and protection strategy in place for its Morwell mine and Hazelwood power station, including fire detection, fire prevention and fire mitigation measures,” the company stated.
“These processes include regular patrols, fire watch, fire alerts, sprays and a fully-reticulated fire service water system to protect operational and strategic non-operational areas, as well as reduce dust levels in the mine’s exposed coal faces. The focus at all times is on ensuring the safety of people, along with ensuring supply of power and protection of property and infrastructure.”
Dr Napthine said the three-member Board of Inquiry would be required to submit its report by the end of August, following which its findings would be made public. He said the board would have similar powers to those of a Royal Commission, and witnesses would be given the same protections as individuals going before the Supreme Court.
At the time of writing, Country Fire Association (CFA) had advised that the fire was under control, but stated that there was still a large amount of work to be done before the fire zone could be declared safe and handed back to the operator.
Fire services commissioner Craig Lapsley said he hoped the incident would lead to a better understanding of how to deal with coal fires.
“I’ve no doubt that this will be a catastrophic event that changes the way in which we deal with brown coal open cut events, and in particular those that are very close to communities,” he said.
“We would be foolish not to pick up the learnings of this and take it to the next generation of how we deal with these. “These open cuts are here to stay, they will be part of the Victorian landscape, and we need to make sure that the learnings are put into the future planning.”
Morwell and nearby towns had been plagued by thick smoke since the fire took hold, and Mr Lapsley said the smoke was not expected to clear straight away.
“There will continue to be some smoke come out of the open cut periodically over the next few days and that could extend for at least a week or until…we get good rains,” he said.
Vulnerable local residents were advised early on to evacuate from the area, and that advice remained as air quality was expected to fluctuate, according to Environmental Protection Authority chief executive John Merritt.
“Air quality has been improving significantly over the last week we’ve seen it deteriorate today with these inversion conditions and we’d expect to see inversion conditions tomorrow morning as well,” Mr
Mr Merritt said the EPA would continue to monitor and test air quality in areas surrounding the mine and would provide information to the Department of Health.