The operator of a Victorian power station has been found guilty of putting staff and the public in danger after a coalmine fire raged for 45 days and blanketed the community in thick smoke and coal dust.
The ABC can also reveal the Hazelwood Power Station operators were found guilty of pollution offences related to the 2014 fire, which started when two bushfires spread into the open-cut coal mine, in a trial earlier this year.
That trial was subject to non-publication orders while the subsequent trial took place.
On Wednesday, a Supreme Court jury found the Hazelwood Power Corporation did not adequately assess the risk of fire, did not have an adequate reticulated water system, failed to slash vegetation around the mine and did not take action early enough to wet down areas around the mine.
After an eight-week trial, jurors also found there were not enough workers at the site with the expertise to fight the fire on the day, and the company failed to adequately assess the risk of a fire entering the mine.
The company was charged with 12 offences, and found guilty of 10.
The jury found the company not guilty of failing to provide decent generators or an alternative power source to operate the fire system.
Watering system was in a state of disrepair
During the second trial, Crown prosecutor Sally Flynn QC argued the company should have foreseen the possibility of a fire entering the mine and the origin of the fire did not matter.
She said the watering system in the northern walls of the mine, known as batters, had fallen into disrepair after the mine was privatised in 1996.
She said as a result, it could not be used to reduce the risk of fire by wetting the coal or be used later to fight the fire.
“Such was the importance of the reticulated system for fire suppression, that during February 2014, during the fire, there were some 9836 metres of additional pipework installed across the northern batters to aid in the suppression of fire,” Ms Flynn said.
Other charges related to creating risk by not adequately staffing the mine on the day the fire started and not maintaining vegetation inside the mine.
Two other charges relating to an alleged failure to maintain vegetation were dropped.
‘Bad things happen’
The court heard there was a total fire ban on the day the fire started but only two extra emergency services staff were rostered on to deal with the increased risk of fire.
The company’s barrister, Ian Hill QC, told the court the fire was a “rare, exceptional, unprecedented event” and one of the fires was started by arsonists.
“When bad things happen it doesn’t always mean that someone is at fault and even if they are at fault it doesn’t mean they’re criminally at fault,” he said.
Mr Hill told the court the company had conducted a review of major mining hazards in October 2012, which included fire.
He said even if a risk assessment for external fire was undertaken it “would not have led to any particular control being implemented, so as to eliminate or reduce risk”.
Mr Hill said the company had identified heat, vehicles and electrical faults in the operating areas of the mine as the highest fire risk.
“They recognised that fire could occur and most likely would occur in the operational areas,” he said.
“They had policy plans and procedures and training … to deal with combat the incidents of fire and they did so on a regular basis.”
The secret trial
The first Supreme Court trial, which started in May and went for eight weeks, was kept secret so as not to compromise the jury in the second trial.
In July, a jury found a group of four companies guilty of a total of 12 charges.
Hazelwood Pacific, Australian Power Partners, Hazelwood Churchill and National Power Australia Investments – part of Hazelwood Power Corporation – were convicted of offences related to creating unsafe pollution around the town of Morwell.
The trial, before Justice Andrew Keogh, heard details of health impacts members of the Morwell community experienced during and after the fire.
Simon Ellis told the court he watched the fire take hold in the mine from his balcony in Morwell.
Mr Ellis, who has since moved away from Morwell, developed a wheeze which he blamed on the smoke and said his young daughter suffered nosebleeds.
“I had these coughing fits that started. I would just cough and actually pass out from coughing, where I actually ended up going to hospital,” he said.
‘There was ash everywhere’
Another local explained how she lost her voice from working and living in the town during the mine fire.
“We were all sick from the fumes and from the smoke we’d inhaled,” Michelle Gatt testified.
“There was ash everywhere, no matter how much I vacuumed or swept, you couldn’t get rid of it and it continued to be like that for the next couple of weeks, probably four weeks.”
Crown prosecutor David Neal SC argued the company failed to properly prepare for a massive fire and did not do enough to fight the fire when it did take hold.
“The mine … failed to put in place sufficient reticulation, allowed vegetation to grow unchecked in the worked-out batters and failed to provide sufficient staff in light of all the resources that would be needed to meet such an attack,” Dr Neal said.
“That’s the reason that the pollution occurred.
“Thirty-five people on 9 February 2014 was never going to be enough people to deal with embers from a bushfire attack.”