Firefighting equipment, including water mains and sprinklers, had been removed from the disused section of the open-pit brown coal lignite mine, which has been ablaze since February 9, said firefighters. On Friday, officials urged an evacuation of nearby South Morwell residents, including children, elderly and those with respiratory ailments; The Australian reported more than 25,000 oxygen masks have been distributed.
Meanwhile, questions are arising over the project, with firefighters saying it was inadequately rehabilitated with a top layer of clay and soil to reduce fire risks, with minimal sprinklers, according to local reports. The 3,554-hectare asset and a 1,542 megawatt (MW) power station, which it supplies with 18 million tons annually, has witnessed several other fires—including one in a disused section lasting more than a week in 2006.
Most recently, Moe South CFA Captain Brendan Jenkins said sprinklers and water mains had “clearly been ripped out,” according to The Age newspaper. “If it was properly covered with non-combustible material, clay and vegetation,” meanwhile, “it wouldn’t have burnt at all,” he said; rehabilitated northern wall segments were unaffected, while management is scrambling to reinstall the mains.
Speaking anonymously to The Age, a career firefighter confirmed northern wall difficulties stemmed from water main and sprinkler head removal. “The main reason was because of the water issues,” he said. “It meant during the early stages of the fire there was no water access to contain it.”
A GDF Suez spokesman responded that fire services were in place in “the bulk of the areas impacted” and that flames initially severed power to the mine—thereby reducing water supplies and, accordingly, firefighters’ ability to control the blaze for the first 12 hours. The mine plan, he emphasized, included “stringent” operating, safety and rehabilitation requirements; the fire, he noted was also arson-related. “We are alarmed our business is threatened,” he told The Age.
Environmental Defenders Office principal solicitor Felicity Millner, however, said the work plan appears to have potential compliance issues. If so, “it raises serious questions about the department and the role in ensuring compliance,” she said.
Moreover, “whether it’s a failure of regulations or enforcement, it needs to be sorted out—because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Millner added; built in 1971, Hazelwood employs 540 people and 300 contractors, while supplying 25% of Victoria’s energy and 5.4% of Australia’s overall.