The owner of what has been described as the dirtiest coal power plant in the developed world – the Hazelwood brown coal generator in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley – has been charged with 10 breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, over a 45-day long fire that burned in the plant’s coal mine in early 2014.
The fire, which burned out of control from the start of February to March 10, covered the surrounding area in thick smoke and ash, and caused high levels of particulate pollution in the nearby town of Morwell.
The charges levelled at the brown coal plant’s French owner Engie – including failing to provide a safe workplace and failing to provide a safe environment for the community – follow a second state inquiry into the incident, which found it was likely to have contributed to deaths in the surrounding Latrobe Valley.
The findings are in line with independent research from September 2014 that revealed an 89 per cent probability that death rates were above average over the February and March 2014 period, with an estimated 11 to 14 extra deaths. (See graph below)
The ABC Online reports that while the latest state inquiry does not make any findings about the number of deaths the mine fire might have contributed to, it did find it most likely contributed to an increase in deaths in the Latrobe Valley at the time.
National Party member for Morwell, Russell Northe, said residents had mixed feelings about the charges, coming so long after the event.
“I think there is an element of people in the community who have moved on and would like to move on,” he said.
“There are obviously others who are still impacted by what occurred and that’s quite understandable, it was an awful, terrible time and there are a lot of lessons that needed to be learnt.”
The Environment Protection Authority is also reportedly investigating possible breaches of environmental law.
And health has not been the only casualty of the fire. In October 2014, an Environment Victoria report estimated the overall cost of the fire at more than $A100 million, not counting the connected long-term health issues.
The firefighting bill alone, it found – with 7,000 firefighters working for 45 days straight to contain the fire – was estimated at $18 million.
The charges from WorkSafe deliver a blow to the partially French government-owned Engie, which just last month signalled a new focus on solar generation, and last October promised to cease building any new coal-fired generators, including in energy-hungry emerging economies.