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ETU to call on Coroner and Keelty to examine role of energy regulator funding cuts in Tathra fires

Paul Lister - Friday, March 23, 2018

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) will write to both the NSW Coroner and Mick Keelty, charged with investigating the Tathra fires, asking both to consider the role of the Australian Energy regulator (AER) in forcing maintenance cuts on power companies.

An investigation by Rural Fire Service (RFS) specialist investigators reported late yesterday that electricity network assets are likely to have played a role in starting the Tathra fire, which resulted in more than 60 homes being lost and damage to countless others.

Similar devestating bushfires in the last 10 years in both Victoria and the Blue Mountains were found to have been caused by vegetation coming in to contact with power assets during extreme weather events On both occassions significant class action litigation resulted from families who had lost their homes.

ETU Assistant Secretary Justin Page said today that the role of the Australian Energy Regulator in cutting maintenance funding to power companies was a national disgrace and directly resulted in power companies being unable to adequately manage effective maintenance programs including vegetation near power lines.

“The AER needs to be brought to account as a result of this devestating fire. Tathra is potentially the latest example in a long list of fires caused by cuts to maintenance by power networks.”

“In an era of extreme weather events, this faceless regulator has consciously chosen to ignore the public and community safety implications of its decisions and has chosen to focus solely on economic arguments.”

“This is at least the fourth significant national tragedy that has occured for arguably the same reasons.  This needs to be a part of both upcoming investigations into the Tathra bush fire.”

In 2015 the NSW ETU formally raised concerns with the AER about proposed cuts to vegetation maintenance, citing bushfire risk following expert analysis (copies available). The AER however ignored the ETU’s concerns and proceeded to slash maintenance funding for all NSW power companies.

“Communities have suffered significant loss during events such as the recent Tathra bushfire and network operators have been placed under undue pressure when it comes to maintaining a large network of aging infrastructure.” said Mr Page

In a 2016 media release, then ETU NSW Secretary Steve Butler said about the AER “unsustainably slashing the money spent on maintaining, repairing and operating the network simply leads to inadequate infrastructure that may spark bushfires, fail in periods of extreme weather, or result in a growing number of blackouts and service disruptions.”

READ THE ETU SUBMISSION TO AER FEBRUARY 2015 RAISING CONCERNS ABOUT PUBLIC SAFETY AND BUSHFIRES: p11, THE COST OF SAFETY

Tathra fires: Government and power regulator may have questions to answer on network funding cuts

Paul Lister - Thursday, March 22, 2018

The NSW RFS preliminary investigation into the Tathra bushfires is expected to be released today and if, as anticipated, the NSW Government owned Essential Energy is identified as a possible ignition source the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) and NSW Government will have serious questions to answer following massive power line maintenance funding cuts.

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) today called on the Australian Energy Regulator and NSW Government to explain massive maintenance funding cuts which the union believes has the potential to impact on public safety across NSW.

“If, as anticipated, the initial report by the RFS finds Essential Energy assets played a part in starting the Tathra fire, the Australian Energy Regulator and the State Government as the owners of Essential Energy have a moral oibligation to explain how their massive maintenance funding cuts may be placing the public at serious risk.” said Justin Page ETU NSW Assistant Secretary.

“The NSW Government has been focused on cutting costs at Essential Energy including slashing maintenance and capital works expenditure while at the same time maximising profit,”

“The NSW Government as owner of this aging and complex network and the Australian Energy Regulator should be focused on safety and reliability ahead of cost cutting which is not currently the case leading to potential impacts on network reliability and public safety.” said Mr Page

“If electricity infrastructure is identified as a possible ignition source we believe the upcoming Keelty Inquiry into the disaster at Tathra must look at these significant and underlying structural issues given their potential to impact on public safety.”

“Our thoughts are with the people of Tathra that have been impacted by this tragic event and we believe they deserve answers if today’s RFS report finds that electricity infrastructure was the ignition source of this fire."

In its own documents Essential Energy admits that it has shifted from an “Asset Maintenance” to an “Asset management” methodology while over the past seven years Essential Energy has sacked 1,700 employees representing almost 40% of its workforce.

Essential Energy has also massively underspent on it’s operating expenditure budget to the tune of $129 million in 217 and they have slashed capital expenditure by 38% since 2012 as a result of the Australian Energy Regulator limiting how much the company can spend.

Conversely, profit, net profit and distributions to the state Government have grown significantly in recent years.

“These numbers paint a compelling picture; the Regulator, the business and the NSW Government have combined to create a situation where the workforce has been cut to the bone and maintenance and safety work which any reasonable people would consider critical has also been cut back.”