The Hazelwood mine disaster could easily have been avoided

The blaze was eventually extinguished 45 days after it was sparked by a grassfire. Country Fire Authority/AAP

The Hazelwood coalmine fire, which burned for 45 days earlier this year, was a catastrophe for the town of Morwell in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

Homes were blanketed in smoke and ash, many residents were told to evacuate, and the overall damage bill has been estimated at more than A$100 million.

Yet the disaster could have been avoided, according to the Hazelwood Mine Fire Commission, which recently handed down its findings regarding the origin of the fire, the firefighting response, and the preparedness measures taken by mine operator GDF Suez.

A foreseeable fire

The commission disagreed with GDF Suez’s argument that the fire was created by a “perfect storm of events”. Rather, it pointed to a failure to implement adequate risk management procedures, saying GDF Suez had approached the risk-management process as one of minimum compliance, rather than best practice and continuous improvement.

In the words of the commission, the possibility of disaster “could have been foreseen”, but this foreseeable risk was not properly managed.

The commission also found a lack of clarity over who was responsible for the implementation and review of fire management plans – a factor that it said significantly exacerbated the risk. All of the factors that contributed to the ignition and spread of the fire were found to be foreseeable.

After a previous fire at the coalmine in September 2008, GDF Suez failed to carry out a proper risk assessment to see if further preventative work was needed in other worked-out areas of the mine, despite having been recommended to do so. This, the commission noted, could have reduced the severity of the 2014 fire. A golden opportunity to reduce the risk had been missed.

The Commission concluded that GDF Suez did not adequately recognise the risk of a bushfire sparking a major fire in the worked-out areas of the Hazelwood mine, or the potential impacts such a fire might have on Morwell and surrounding communities.

When the fire broke out, the situation was worsened by the fact that large amounts of coal in the worked-out areas had been left exposed to the air, and that pipework from the fire service network had been removed because of deterioration. Under GDF Suez’s self-imposed guidelines, these areas were still classed as protected because they were within five minutes’ travel from a tanker filling point or hydrant manifold. But Country Fire Service volunteers who fought the blaze told the commission they had trouble finding and using these water sources.

The commission recommended that GDF Suez conduct a thorough risk assessment of the worked-out areas of the Hazelwood mine. It also recommended that the Victorian government introduce legislation to require miners to draw up integrated fire-management plans. The commission made it clear that in the circumstances, doing nothing was simply not an option.

In rehab

The fact that the fire burned through worked-out areas of the mine also raised questions about the adequacy of GDF Suez’s mine rehabilitation program.

The original Hazelwood mine licence was granted on May 10, 1996. The original application was subsequently revised and a new 30-year licence was issued a few month later. On 11 July 2006, the mining licence was amalgamated with four other mining licences that had been issued to create a single larger mine. This licence was varied to allow mining to take place on the west field of the Hazelwood mine, and to require the licensee to spend A$667,930 per year on mining work in the licensed area.

In all, the work plan for the Hazelwood mine, which was approved on 10 September 1996, was varied seven times, with the latest and most substantial variation to the work plan being made in 2009. The 2009 variation was required to further expand the mine into the west field development region.

GDF Suez paid a rehabilitation bond of A$15 million in 1996. While this was initially intended to be an interim figure based, according to the commission, on “an estimate of rehabilitation costs for ongoing progressive rehabilitation and final rehabilitation at present day values”, it was clearly an underestimate. Despite this, the rehabilitation bond was never revised, even though the commission estimated that the cost of complete rehabilitation for the mine would have been about A$100 million.

Significantly, the rehabilitation bond was not reassessed in 2009 when the land area subject to the mining licence was substantially increased, even though this would obviously have resulted in an increase of land requiring rehabilitation. But the commission did not find that the failure to reassess the rehabilitation bond was a breach of regulations, because of the discretionary nature of the bonds which made assessment variable.

The commission did, however, find deficiencies in the rehabilitation program. From 1996 to 2000, several sections of the worked-out areas of the mine were not effectively rehabilitated. It was argued before the commission that the rehabilitation program was a complex, costly and time-consuming exercise and that the failure to remediate was the consequence of several factors, including a lack of dirt and clay (or “overburden”) to cover the top of the coal, bad weather hampering rehabilitation projects, and the fact that future mining activity would have resulted in the removal of any overburden put into place anyway. The commission confirmed that to privatisation, no rehabilitation works were undertaken within the pit or on any of the worked-out areas of the Hazelwood mine.

Despite these findings, the commission found that the rehabilitation obligations set out in the 2009 variation were technically being met. The first trigger for remediation did not actually come into full effect until 2019. Hence, although initial remediation had not occurred, the Commission felt that there was still time for GDF Suez to meet its requirements.

The commission did not recommend changes to the regulatory framework for rehabilitation obligations. While it noted that rehabilitation obligations were important, it argued that they should not be relied upon as the primary strategy for fire prevention.

GDF Suez responded to the report by strongly defending its actions, maintaining its argument that it could not have predicted the events that led to the blaze, that it had implemented many of the regulations raised by the commission, and that the findings were largely a matter of degree and interpretation.

The company did not accept liability for the fire, and did not indicate whether it would provide compensation for losses caused by it.

It didn’t have to happen

The frustrating thing for the people of Morwell, which is confirmed by the commission’s report, is that the social, environmental and economic devastation caused by the fire was easily avoidable. With proper fire management and a comprehensive mine rehabilitation plan, the risk of a disaster of this scale would have been significantly reduced.

Hopefully, the commission’s recommendations will help to avoid any similar event occurring in the future, although they should not be treated as a panacea. The brown coal industry must learn from this event and make absolutely sure that it is fully prepared through the implementation of careful, coordinated integrated fire management plans and a strict adherence to rehabilitation responsibilities. The most effective way of shifting behaviour is through the implementation of stronger and more focused regulation.

Appearing before the inquiry in June, GDF Suez senior manager George Graham said “hindsight’s a great thing”, adding: “obviously we’ve had a huge event which is deeply regrettable and we will ensure we won’t have another event like that again”.

Hindsight is one thing, but much greater foresight is needed if the industry is to put an end to the spate of accidents that have befallen Victoria’s mining industry.

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