What's the coal story?

27 May 2014

Law professor urges Hazelwood Inquiry to reduce coal mining risks.

The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry has begun this week and is seeking answers as to how the Hazelwood fire began and lasted so long – causing devastating damage to the environment, with acrid fumes blanketing Morwell and surrounding areas for many weeks.

Incidents such as the 45-day fire at Hazelwood are virtually guaranteed in Victoria, unless stricter legislation is enforced, argues Deakin’s Professor Samantha Hepburn, Associate Head of School (Research) from the Faculty of Business and Law.

Professor Hepburn has made a submission to the inquiry that reflects her many years of research on this issue.

“This fire was the latest in a spate of mining failures over the past few years,” she said. “People’s health and lives are at stake when incidents such as these occur.”

“The ‘Emergency Risks in Victoria’ report, published earlier this year, showed that both open cut and subsurface mines, particularly coal mines, are highly susceptible to infrastructure, operational, environmental, and safety failures.”

Professor Hepburn added that the report showed that the chance of an annual “medium impact” mine failure in Victoria is almost 100 per cent.

While mining is an “inherently dangerous” industry, she argues that it is possible to reduce the risks by introducing focussed regulatory measures that include the establishment of technical advisory boards, standardised safety management plans and externally monitored safety rehabilitation and environmental operations.

“This inquiry provides the perfect opportunity for real reform,” Professor Hepburn said. “There was an inquiry into the Yallourn landslide in 2008 that identified several significant measures, but these were never followed up, so we have continued to have incidents virtually every year.”

Victoria could learn from Queensland’s “Petroleum and Gas (Safety and Production) Act” that requires operators to submit publicly accessible safety plans and prohibits activities that involve “avoidable risks,” she noted.

“Adequate remediation, particularly in the case of open-cut mines, is a crucial safety measure, but the current system in Victoria, where mines are required to pay rehabilitation bonds, or a ‘mine stability levy’ is not enough incentive to the mines. The remediation costs could easily be higher than the bonds.”

         Read more in "The Conversation:"

Seeking reform - Professor Samantha Hepburn Seeking reform - Professor Samantha Hepburn

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