Just five days before Black Saturday, a power company now at the centre of investigations into the cause of bushfires that killed 121 people refused to fix rusty and corroded transmission line equipment found during a safety audit.
The rusty and corroded equipment was found during an audit of SP AusNet’s bushfire prevention plans in December last year by Energy Safe Victoria, the government agency responsible for monitoring the state’s private power distribution companies.
On February 2, five days before the Black Saturday catastrophe that killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes, SP AusNet wrote to ESV, saying that it planned to take no action about “corroded (rusty) line ties and armour rods”.
Documents tendered to the Black Saturday royal commission by ESV show the company claimed its own detailed inspection of the equipment had found “only evidence of surface rust that does not compromise the mechanical integrity of these items”.
“Hence no action was proposed to be taken in relation to these at this stage as they were considered to be safe,” SP AusNet said in the letter to ESV, explaining its refusal to take no action. “These items will be reinspected and assessed at the next scheduled routine inspection.”
In March, ESV’s director wrote to SP AusNet saying the agency was launching a follow-up audit in light of the company’s decision to take no action over the rusty and corroded equipment.
That follow-up safety audit is still under way. Victoria Police’s Phoenix Taskforce is investigating whether the failure of electricity transmission equipment operated by SP AusNet started the Black Saturday fires at Kilmore East.
The fires eventually devastated communities in the Kinglake Ranges and killed 119 people, and at Mudgegonga, where two people died. Phoenix Taskforce head Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood said in a statement tendered to the royal commission that the East Kilmore fire “was likely caused from a high tension power line which fell, earthing and sparking”.
Singapore-owned SP AusNet last month described as “false” a media report that the police investigation into the Kilmore East fire, codenamed Operation Angora, had found the power line in question had been badly rusted.
The royal commission was told last week that the Mudgegonga blaze, which also destroyed or damaged 29 houses, was most likely caused by a tree falling on one of SP AusNet’s transmission lines.
The royal commission is yet to look in detail at the causes of the Kilmore East fire.
The rusty and corroded equipment identified in last year’s safety audit was not on the lines allegedly involved in the Kilmore East or Mudgegonga fires.
The ESV safety audit also recommended that SP AusNet modify its bushfire mitigation management plan “as it is disjointed and hard to read and it does not reflect what actually happens in the field”.
ESV director Ken Gardner has previously testified to the royal commission that the regulator lacked the power to impose sanctions against power companies that failed to comply with bushfire mitigation plans.
He said SP AusNet and the state’s other main electricity distributor, Powercor, were “in an overall sense” compliant with ESV regulations at the time of the Black Saturday bushfires, although “certain areas in which the distribution companies can improve” had been identified.
A spokesman for ESV said he was unable to comment on the agency’s audit findings on SP AusNet because it was still before the royal commission.
SP AusNet has defended its asset management and maintenance programs as being “in line with good industry practice”.