When Victorian Minister for Energy and Resources Lily D’Ambrosio reopened the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry last week on a crisp Tuesday morning in Traralgon, she promised the assembled crowd that Labor would “leave no stone unturned when it comes to getting to the bottom of what happened on that terrible day, when we had a fire in the Hazelwood mine”.

That “terrible day” was, according to the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, “on or about 9 February 2014”. The reopened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry will investigate some vitally important issues, including the prospect that at least 11 premature deaths occurred in the Latrobe Valley during the mine fire due to exposure to toxic smoke. It will also address the vexed question of how Victoria’s brown coal mines will be rehabilitated.

However, the new terms of reference for the reopened inquiry look set to leave some of the largest and potentially most scandalous “stones” of the whole Hazelwood mine fire controversy right where they are.

Key questions not addressed by the new terms of reference include:

  • Can the public be sure that there wasn’t a fire already burning inside Hazelwood mine before the bushfire on the afternoon of Sunday, February 9, 2014?
  • Were employees and subcontractors of mine owner GDF Suez, and/or firefighters forced to work in unsafe conditions during the mine fire, leading to subsequent health problems?

A lot is at stake here, including the jeopardised health of thousands of people, and the potential deaths of one dozen individuals and counting. The firefighting effort alone cost $32.5 million, with the total cost of the mine fire well over $100 million. However, the ABC has reported that the reopened inquiry is not going to investigate the matter of GDF Suez’s potential liability for the mine fire.

Justice Bernard  Teague has not ruled out that the mine might have already been ablaze before it was threatened by bushfire embers on February 9 last year. “I’d like to know whether there was something that was suppressed,” Teague said. “My recollection was that there was some substance [to the allegations], but we couldn’t get hold of a person who would [testify publicly]. We couldn’t rule it out, but we just can’t examine it. I remember this [information] coming out, and GDF Suez said, ‘You give it to us, in a way that we can investigate, and we will deal with it’.”

Exactly how GDF Suez would “deal with it” was not specified.

Unturned stones

Both of the following allegations were published in my book The Coal Face in March this year:

  • Allegations by a number of anonymous GDF Suez workers, reported by CFMEU boss Luke van der Meulen, that there was already a fire burning inside the Hazelwood open-cut mine before the Driffield and Hernes Oak fires reached the mine’s eastern perimeters.

“The trouble is — and I reported this to the [2014] Mine Fire Inquiry — a number of our members told us that they were experiencing fires in the Morwell mine, well before the supposed fire jumped into the mine [on Sunday],” said van der Meulen. “But none of them will come forward. If you come forward on something like this you will probably lose your job.”

  • Allegations by an anonymous GDF Suez contractor that, during the mine fire, contractors with dangerously high carbon dioxide levels in their bloodstreams were forced to avoid CO2 testing stations by driving their trucks out through a “back gate”, and subsequently operated heavy machinery in an incapacitated manner on major public roads.

“Just to fill you in — I can only post so much, as told will lose [my] job,” one worker wrote.

“We are contractors that drive tilt trays and low loaders on a daily basis. We have to drive to the bottom of the open-cut [mine] for Coates Hire/Hazelwood Power etc. We are unprotected. Told to use back gate as our [carbon dioxide] readings are too high. Medical teams [at the front gate] will not let us leave. We have felt so light-headed, throwing up etc. etc., then we drive on road in heavy vehicles, putting other road users at risk […] If I don’t do this I will lose my job.

“As of today we have to hand phones in to Hazelwood Power security, if phone has camera. No photos to be taken on site. Think we need 60 Minutes, Today Tonight, etc. [ . . . ] don’t believe reports from … any government department, they tell lies. They don’t want the town to panic.”

In a subsequent message:
“‘Just got home from Hazelwood. Ended up in medical. [Carbon dioxide] readings were over the top. Ambos wanted to take me hospital. Officers in charge wouldn’t let me leave. Three heart attacks here today. ‘What happens at Hazelwood stays at Hazelwood,’ they are telling us. They are paying us off with Bunnings gift vouchers and hats to keep what is happening in Hazelwood ‘
under our hat’ lol. I’m over it.”

GDF Suez spokesperson Trevor Rowe has described the workers’ health and safety allegations above as “absolute rubbish” and “unverified“. However, Rowe has also confirmed that GDF Suez employees were banned from speaking to the media. Several GDF Suez employees have said that the penalty for speaking to journalists is losing their jobs. In such a situation, it’s impossible for workers’ various allegations to be verified without employees risking their livelihoods.

The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry’s relaunched website includes the following information for people considering making a submission:

  • The Board will not accept anonymous submissions, but it will consider keeping submissions confidential (on a case-by-case basis);
  • If you wish your submission to be treated as confidential, please indicate this on the submission cover sheet, and state the reasons why you seek confidentiality. An Inquiry staff member will be in contact to discuss this further with you.

These terms are far from reassuring. For one thing, if the inquiry’s staff decide that a GDF Suez employee’s submission should not be kept confidential, what will happen to that submission? What protection will be offered to whistleblowers in such circumstances?

When questioned about these matters, D’Ambrosio responded: “Anonymity is a matter for the [Inquiry] panel to consider and my understanding is that people who are seeking their submissions to be treated as confidential can discuss this with the [inquiry] secretariat.”

According to Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Ariane Wilkinson, there are protections in place for whistle blowers testifying about their employers, but that doesn’t mean people in the Latrobe Valley know about such laws, or understand them.

“The Inquiries Act says that it’s a criminal offence for an employer to fire or threaten to fire someone who gives evidence,” Wilkinson confirmed. “But from an access-to-justice perspective, people need to be educated about that part of the law, they need to understand what it means, and they need to be supported to rely on it. There’s no duty for their employer to inform them … If people don’t even know the protection is there for a start, then it’s ineffective.”

Unless the workers that were involved in the Hazelwood mine fire understand the whistleblower protection available to them well before the inquiry’s public hearings begin, crucial pieces of information will never find their way into the new inquiry report — as may well have been the case with the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry.

And unless there are mechanisms in place for workers to submit testimony anonymously, vital information contained in confidential submissions will never see the light of day, or be subject to media scrutiny.

If  Teague, chair of the newly reopened inquiry, is unable to find out what really happened inside Hazelwood Mine, how will D’Ambrosio ever be able to claim that her government did, in fact, “get to the bottom of what happened on that terrible day”?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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