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Coal operator found guilty of endangering its workers

Hazelwood Coal Power Station
Hazelwood Coal Power Station

A coal company should have been better prepared for a devastating bushfire that lasted more than a month and put hundreds of people out of work, a court has ruled.

The Supreme Court of Victoria has found Hazelwood Power Corporation guilty of 10 out of 12 charges concerning the proponent’s response to the February 2014 fires that devastated Hazelwood Coal Power Station, 156km east of Melbourne.

Jurors blamed management for failing to perform an adequate risk assessment, install an adequate reticulated water system, slash vegetation around the mine and water areas around the mine before the station was engulfed in flames. They also questioned the lack of workers on duty who knew how to fight fires, according to the Australian Associated Press (AAP).

800 people lost their jobs

The bushfire eventually spread to the mine and lasted 45 days, blanketing the nearby town of Morwell in smoke for weeks. Nearly 500 permanent employees lost their jobs plus a further 300 contractors when the power station closed its doors in March 2017.

Hazelwood was cleared of two charges concerning the absence of electrical generators or any other power source to operate the fire water system.

WorkSafe confirmed the fire had a devastating impact on many workers and emergency personnel who fought the blaze, as well as thousands of nearby residents.

“We welcome the jury’s finding that the company should have been much better prepared for the risk of fire, especially considering previous fires at the mine and the extreme weather conditions forecast that weekend,” WorkSafe chief of business operations Marnie Williams told AAP. “This verdict sends a clear warning to all employers that WorkSafe can, and will, prosecute them if they fail to put the safety of not only their workers but also the community, first.”

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Further litigation

Meanwhile, four companies that operated the station were previously found guilty of pollution offences resulting from the mine fire back in July 2019.

Another jury found Hazelwood Pacific, Australian Power Partners, Hazelwood Churchill and National Power Australia Investments guilty of three charges from the State Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The outcome of the first trial is being postponed until the outcome of this second trial.

“These companies did not light the fire but have now been found to have been responsible for the pollution which came from it, which the court heard had an impact upon the community,” EPA Victoria boss Cathy Wilkinson said in a statement obtained by AAP. “We’re pleased that the companies involved have been held responsible for the pollution that came from this fire.”

State MP for Melbourne Ellen Sandell criticised the Victoria’s mostly foreign-owned coal plants for having “little regard for the health of the community or the environment” and vowed to phase them out.

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