SP AusNet faces class action over Black Saturday

Rachel Brown
ABC News

A faulty powerline that is believed to have sparked the fatal Kinglake bushfire is the subject of a class action against power company SP AusNet.

A prominent SC says if the power distributor is responsible, it could be up for $800 million in damages.

The Black Saturday blaze that ravaged Kinglake and surrounding areas killed more than 100 people and left more than 1,000 homeless.

It is alleged the deadly fire was sparked by a powerline that snapped in record heat and strong winds at Kilmore East.

Tim Tobin SC is leading a class action against Singapore-owned electricity company, SP AusNet.

They are responsible for maintaining many of Victoria’s power lines.

Mr Tobin SC says it is believed six of the Black Saturday fires were started by power asset failures, and he says it could easily happen again.

“There has been a recognition of a deterioration in the power transmission assets over the last few years,” he said.

“There have been people who have been affected by falling conductors.

“The concern of the people of the country is not only what happened last February but it will continue to happen until there is an increased vigilance in the maintenance of power assets.”

SP AusNet has declined to comment.

Monitoring powerlines

It has been revealed that six months before the fires, Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner called for a better system to monitor fallen powerlines.

However both the State Government and the distributor have been unable to tell the ABC whether this has been implemented, and whether it would have reduced the death toll.

The issue of powerlines in extreme weather events was raised in the Emergency Services Commissioner’s report into the April 2008 windstorm.

While most media attention was focused on Commissioner Bruce Esplin’s warning that the state’s 000 phone service could collapse in extreme events, recommendation four was also foreboding:

“Electricity distribution businesses develop and implement alternative arrangements for monitoring fallen powerlines,” it read.

Six months on, the Government is still considering the report.

It says the recommendation is being implemented, but will not say how, or what discussions it has had with distributors.

It says all these matters will be considered by the Royal Commission.

SP AusNet would not be interviewed, but told ABC Radio’s PM program: “SP AusNet has been proactive in implementing measures since the April windstorms to improve our response to extreme weather events.”

“This includes the use of trained ‘scouts’ to patrol powerlines during storm events, and continual investment in protection equipment.”

Ageing infrastructure

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) is worried about ageing infrastructure.

In its submission to pricing inquiries since the industry’s privatisation in 1994, the ETU speaks of “dangerously inadequate aging infrastructure”, of the “maintenance unaccountability of distribution companies” and of a “drastically reduced workforce to work on live lines”.

The union’s state executive member Graeme Watson says infrastructure is in a “dire situation”.

“I think the frailty of the system is highlighted by the 2007 windstorm, and other events that have occurred over the last few years,” he said.

“[It’s changed from] a system that was maintained by the State Electricity Commission prior to privatisation, to an industry that’s been dissected and privatised with no dedicated form of maintenance.

“We’ve now got a terminology used across industries, particularly in the Victorian power industry of reactive maintenance.

“So you fix the equipment or system when it fails. Now unfortunately, in electricity when it fails, it generally fails catastrophically.”


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