Smoke from the Morwell coal mine fire. Photo: Joe Armao
The long-running Hazelwood coalmine fire has been described as ''an accident waiting for a time to happen'' in a hard-hitting submission from Environment Victoria to the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry that criticises the level of rehabilitation works at the mine.
The submission recommends that mine operator GDF SUEZ should be required to set out clear standards and timelines for the progressive rehabilitation of the mine, including how and when these conditions would be met.
It also recommends the Energy Minister reassess the mine rehabilitation bond, arguing that the ''final rehabilitation bond'' of $15 million should be much larger.
Environment Victoria describes the fire as ''one of the worst environmental disasters in Victorian history'', adding that it ''created a choking reminder of the real price of relying on coal for electricity''.
It urges the board of inquiry, headed by former Victorian Supreme Court judge Bernard Teague, to carefully examine the status of sprinkler systems inside the mine, water supply and firefighting procedures in the mine. It also asks that the inquiry examine whether the fire could have been caused by ''spontaneous ignition'' rather than embers from a nearby grassfire, which have been repeatedly blamed for the blaze.
''Brown coal is a known fire risk. The best approach to fire prevention in a coalmine is to properly rehabilitate areas of the mine that are not being used. As the Hazelwood mine fire exposed, there are significant problems with the standard and extent of rehabilitation at the mine site.
''Firstly, this submission outlines that rehabilitation requirements imposed on GDF Suez by the Victorian government are currently too vague and lacking in detail to be effectively enforced. Secondly, there has been an absence of communication between the government and GDF Suez about the status of rehabilitation work,'' Environment Victoria says.
The coalmine fire is believed to have ignited on February 9. For weeks afterwards it sent smoke and fine coal ash over Morwell, a town of about 14,000, repeatedly giving residents poor air quality. Many residents complained of headaches, sore throats and eyes, and nausea, which they blamed on the fire. Environment Victoria also calls for the government to develop an ''emergency response plan'' covering communities living near coalmines, including pollution trigger points for evacuation. And it strongly criticises the government's health response to the fire, saying ''significant confusion'' arose among residents about what they should do.
A spokesman for GDF SUEZ, Trevor Rowe, said issues ''raised by Environment Victoria and others would be dealt with through the inquiry''. ''I think it's inappropriate to be commenting on submissions that have been put to the inquiry before the inquiry actually begins, and we will certainly be responding to issues that are raised by the panel during the inquiry,'' he said.
In a recent statement on its website, GDF SUEZ said it had been assisting the inquiry. ''The company has facilitated an inspection of the Hazelwood mine by board members and the inquiry secretariat and continues to respond to ongoing requests for information. GDF SUEZ Australian Energy supports and welcomes the inquiry and will attend and participate in the upcoming public hearings to provide further assistance as required by the board,'' it said.
At a doorstop interview in March in Traralgon, Luc Dietvorst, head of Generation Australia at GDF SUEZ Australian Energy, strongly defended the level of fire preparedness at the Hazelwood mine. He said he was comfortable with any investigations into the fire.