Australia

Hazelwood Power Corporation fined $1.56 million over 2014 Victorian coal mine fire

In this Feb. 25, 2014, photo provided by the Incident Control Centre, a fire burns at the Hazelwood Coal Mine at Morwell, Australia. Source: Incident Control Centre/AAP

The operator of Victoria's defunct Hazelwood power station has been fined more than $1.5 million for a bushfire that spread to a mine and burned for 45 days.

The operator of a defunct Victorian power station must fork out more than $1.5 million after a bushfire spread to its coal mine and burned for 45 days.

Hazelwood Power Corporation was convicted of putting employees and nearby residents at risk by failing to prepare for the February 2014 fire in the state's Latrobe Valley.

It was fined $1.56 million in the Supreme Court of Victoria on Tuesday.

The company wasn't responsible for the blaze that started near the mine during extreme weather. But a jury found Hazelwood guilty of 10 out of 12 occupational health and safety breaches.

Its bushfire risk assessment was inadequate and there were not enough staff on the site with expertise to fight the blaze which spread to the mine on 9 February that year.

"It was not an adequate response to risk to wait until a bushfire was bearing down on the mine to increase staff numbers or to rely on goodwill of staff who attended voluntarily," Justice Andrew Keogh found.

The fire in the open cut mine burned for weeks, blanketing the nearby town of Morwell in thick smoke, and exposing residents, mine workers and firefighters to particles including carbon monoxide.

Supplied image of firefighters battling a blaze at the Hazelwood open cut coal mine near Morwell, Victoria, Wednesday, March 5, 2014.
Supplied image of firefighters battling a blaze at the Hazelwood open cut coal mine near Morwell, Victoria, Wednesday, March 5, 2014.
CFA/AAP

Hazelwood's previous successes in reducing the number of coal fires at the site had led to a degree of complacency, the judge found.

"This was not because of any conscious disregard by (Hazelwood), which was clearly attentive to the risk of coal fire at the mine," said.

Hazelwood hadn't come under attack from a bushfire or burning embers in almost 60 years of operations.

But the 2014 disaster showed "a degree of complacency and subconscious acceptance of risk born from success in reducing the number of mine fires" in the past.

Justice Keogh ordered a stay of 90 days for payment of the fine.

WorkSafe Victoria said Hazelwood, which closed in 2017, should have been better prepared given previous blazes and the extreme weather at the time.

"This was an entirely foreseeable event that has led to significant adverse health impacts," WorkSafe's chief executive Colin Radford said following the sentence.

Four companies that operated the power station were separately found guilty of three pollution offences over the same blaze.

Hazelwood Pacific Pty Ltd, Australian Power Partners B.V., Hazelwood Churchill Pty Ltd and National Power Australia Investments Ltd are due to be sentenced for the Environmental Protection Agency breaches later on Tuesday.

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