GDF Suez refuses to pay Hazelwood coalmine fire bill

Firefighters battling the blaze at the Hazelwood open cut coalmine, near Morwell.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Scandal has erupted in Victoria as GDF Suez, the majority owner of the Hazelwood coal-fired power station, refuses to pay an $18 million bill to the Country Fire Authority. The bill is for the firefighting effort at last year's coalmine fire that blanketed local towns with soot and smoke for 45 days.

Acting state Premier James Merlino has threatened court proceedings against the company if they refuse to pay, while GDF Suez representatives claim their fire insurance payments over the past decade should cover the $18 million. GDF Suez have been criticised for removing firefighting infrastructure from a section of the mine that was disused, but had not been rehabilitated.

Voices of the Valley was formed by community members outraged at the way they were treated during the mine fire, and ran a candidate in last year's state election. Spokesperson Wendy Farmer told Green Left Weekly: “GDF Suez should pay the $18 million and start being a responsible corporation working in our backyard. It's our money that they aren't paying up.”

“GDF Suez should take responsibility and take some ownership of the situation.

“We saw at the inquiry [into the fire] one of their top people gave the impression they would not pay extra. He said they had already paid $40 million, which we believe includes their in-mine costs. That's something they should have been responsible for anyway. They should have had proper procedures and protocols to prevent the fire getting into the mine.

“They are constantly letting the community down, they currently have the local council in court over the mine drain that goes under the highway where it collapsed the other year. They want council to take ownership of the drain and pay for damages from mine collapse.

“At the time of the fire, GDF Suez lost a mine in Italy because of deaths and health impacts in the local community. The government took it over. It's time our government took a stand and stopped topping up these companies with our money,” Farmer said.

Voices of the Valley commissioned research that established that a statistically significant increase in deaths in the area occurred due to the mine fire. In response, Premier Daniel Andrews has honoured his pre-election promise to re-open the Mine Fire Inquiry to investigate the increased morbidity and rehabilitation of the mine.

Criticism has also come from environmental organisations. "GDF Suez's refusal to pay an $18 million fire-fighting bill strengthens the case for regulating the coal sector to protect the public purse, community health and our climate," said Cam Walker, Friends of the Earth campaigns coordinator.

"The Hazelwood coal mine fire that burned for 45 days and nights was Victoria's worst environmental disaster. Victorians should not foot the bill."

Environment Victoria released a study in 2014 showing that 450 jobs could be generated over a 20 year period to rehabilitate the mine, were the power station to close. They and the Victorian Greens have called for the power station's closure, as it is the most polluting power station in the country.

Currently the only active plans to transition to renewable energy in the Valley are from the Earthworker cooperative, who wish to establish a solar hot water factory there. Melbourne University researchers Tim Forcey and Roger Dargaville have published an article illustrating how the power station cooling ponds and mine pits could be linked to create a pumped hydro-electricity system.

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