A company ill-prepared for a devastating Victorian coalmine fire could end up in court after refusing to pay an $18 million bill.
GDF Suez said it was surprised to get an invoice from the Country Fire Authority for the Hazelwood mine fire, which blanketed nearby Morwell in toxic smoke and ash for 45 days in early 2014.
“We believe the fire services levy – which is in effect an insurance policy – is designed specifically to cover fire suppression activities, whether they be large or small,” GDF Suez said in a statement on Tuesday.
But Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the company owed Victorians.
“We had 7000 volunteer firefighters who rallied together for 45 very, very long days, risking their own health and safety in a voluntary capacity to bring that devastating fire under control and save that town,” she said.
Ms D’Ambrosio said GDF Suez had been found to be ill-prepared and didn’t respond quickly enough to the bushfire.
“If GDF Suez had been prepared and responded quickly, then things may have been very different,” she said.
Ms D’Ambrosio said the fire services levy covered the day-to-day operations of emergency services, not events like the Hazelwood fire.
Acting Premier James Merlino said the bill was a “conservative” amount, given the effort that went into fighting the blaze.
“If they do not (pay it), the government will consider all options, including court proceedings,” he said.
An official inquiry into the mine fire, chaired by Bernard Teague, was reopened in May and is expected to report on health-related effects by December.
Last week, arson detectives charged a 20-year-old man, who cannot be named, with arson and recklessly causing a bushfire over the blaze in the Latrobe Valley that spread to the Hazelwood mine.
He was bailed to return to court in September.