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Management blamed for failing to prepare for multiple fires at coal mine

Hazelwood Coal Power Station
Hazelwood Coal Power Station

A 2014 fire that burnt for more than six weeks at a Victorian coal operation was “foreseeable” a court has heard.

Hazelwood Power Corporation is being grilled at a Supreme Court trial about the February 9 fires that devastated the Hazelwood Coal Power Station, 156km east of Melbourne.

The disaster burned for a total of 45 days and covered surrounding towns in smoke and ash. Nearly 500 permanent employees lost their jobs plus a further 300 contractors when the power station closed its doors in March 2017.

14 alleged breaches

The operator has been charged with 14 breaches, including failing to do an adequate risk assessment, install an alternative power source and set up a reticulated water pipe system for worked-out mines according to the Australian Associated Press (AAP).

Prosecutor and Queen’s Counsel Sally Flynn claimed Hazelwood should be been prepared for the “obvious and foreseeable risks” of a bushfire, especially since there had already been seven earlier fires at the power station.

“The experience of those previous fires and the reports that had been prepared after those fires stress the same issues,” Flynn said according to AAP. “They became familiar mantras at the Hazelwood mine.”

A lot like Black Saturday

Flynn referred to a report on the 2008 fire that recommended improvements to water systems across the mine that could have countered the 40+ degree heatwave, 100 km/h wind gusts and exposed brown coal that fuelled the disaster. She said the conditions were similar to those that led to the 2009 Black Saturday fires that killed at least 173 people.

The fire was declared a “full-blown emergency” at about 2:52 pm on February 9 and the mine site was not declared safe until March 25.

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‘Simply not possible’

Barrister and Queen’s Counsel Ian Hill defended the allegations and believes the fire actually became a threat nearly two hours before it was declared an emergency.

“The mine was not threatened with fire until after 1pm. That’s the critical time in this trial and one of the critical issues,” Hill said according to AAP. “Hazelwood Power Corporation denies it failed to comply with its duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

He described any suggestion the mine should have been completely watered down to prevent the fire as “simply not possible”.

“Just because a bad event occurs does not mean someone’s at fault,” Hill said.

Justice Andrew Keogh and the jury will visit the town of Morwell and defunct mine site early next week before the trial resumes on October 2.

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