The operator of Victoria’s now-closed Hazelwood Power Station has been fined more than $1.5 million by the Supreme Court of Victoria over the 2014 mine fire, which burned for 45 days, covering the area in smoke and coal dust.
The fire was started by a bushfire burning into the brown coal reserve, forcing evacuations from the nearby town of Morwell.
In November, a Supreme Court jury found the Hazelwood Power Corporation guilty on 10 occupational health and safety charges for putting workers and the public in danger.
The jury found the Hazelwood Power Corporation failed to adequately assess the risk of fire, did not have an adequate reticulated water system, failed to slash vegetation around the mine and left it too late to start wetting down areas around the mine.
The court heard mine and power station workers rushed to the site at the edge of the Princes Freeway when the fire took hold to offer their help in fighting the blaze out of a deep-seated loyalty to their workplace and the community.
Justice Andrew Keogh gave his reasons to a nearly empty courtroom, with the legal teams and members of the community watching online.
“General deterrence will be of particular importance when sentencing HPC,” Justice Keogh said.
He described a level of complacency about a bushfire spreading into the mine because of “the fact that the mine had not come under attack from bushfire or burning embers within almost 60 years of operations”.
In handing down the $1.56 million fine, he took into account the work HPC had previously done in improving the fire conditions within the mine and financial contributions it made to the Latrobe Valley community over the years.
Justice Keogh also considered the unlikely circumstances, including fires lit intentionally, and the weather conditions leading the blaze.
“A combination of events that were very rare and unprecedented,” he said.
Sentence expected on pollution charges
Sentencing for an earlier trial, in which a partnership of the mine’s operators – Hazelwood Pacific, Australian Power Partners, Hazelwood Churchill and National Power Australia Investments – were also found guilty of a total of 12 pollution charges, is due later on Tuesday.
During that trial, a separate Supreme Court jury delivered a guilty verdict on 12 pollution charges, brought by the Environment Protection Authority.
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, also before Justice Keogh, heard details of the health impacts members of the Morwell community experienced during and after the fire.
The power station once supplied 20 per cent of Victoria’s electricity and was the highest polluting power station in Australia when it closed in March 2017.
Its eight iconic chimney stacks are due to be demolished before the end of July.
Remediation work is underway around the site, including inside the old mine, to make the land safe for public use. A lake is planned for the massive mine void.
Its closure left 750 workers without a job.