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Power cord rusty, weak, photos show

25 August 2009 860 views No Comment

THE electricity wire that allegedly sparked the most devastating of the Black Saturday fires was badly worn and weak, and had been repaired three times previously before it snapped in two distinct places on that day, The Sunday Age can reveal.

Photographic evidence prepared by police investigators shows some strands of the 40-year-old galvanised steel wire that sparked the Kilmore East-Kinglake fire had rusted in places to just 1.8 millimetres in diameter. It is believed that power company SP Ausnet’s own internal manuals say that power lines must be immediately replaced if their strands are thinner than two millimetres.

A wire worn to that extent, according to some experts, could carry less than half the weight it was designed for.

It is understood the photographs are being closely examined by the police investigation into the fires, Operation Phoenix.

The Singapore-owned power company responded last night that ”these claims are false”.

”It is premature and inappropriate to speculate, and disappointing that these false claims have been made considering the royal commission process is under way,” a spokeswoman said.

The company has said it will ”vigorously defend” any suggestion that its power lines caused the fire that killed 121 Victorians.

But The Sunday Age has been told that evidence compiled by Operation Phoenix could lead to a number of outcomes. Among them is the possibility of criminal prosecution against the company or its contractors.

Police and metallurgical investigation into the state of the power line is not yet complete, and police have declined to make any comment on the subject.

During the break between hearings, the royal commission has given leave to appear to a company called Utility Asset Management. The Sunday Age understands this is the company contracted by SP Ausnet to maintain its lines. The company could not be contacted yesterday.

A class action worth up to $1 billion against SP Ausnet for the Kilmore fire has been filed, and it also faces suits for other fires on the day. The royal commission begins sitting again tomorrow to inquire into building regulations and materials. It will not start examining causes of the fires and the ”structure and regulation of the electricity industry in Victoria” until next month, and the Kilmore fire will come up in mid-November.

But sources say that evidence already compiled shows a 1.15-kilometre span of power line which had numerous weaknesses and a history of repairs. Three sections of the line had previously been repaired, then wrapped up with wire ”sleeves”. In one section, the wire wrapping appears to have unravelled slightly, and in another a piece of wire has broken and been stuck together with insulating tape.

For one seven-metre span of the power line, there were only two strands of wire. There are supposed to be three strands.

The evidence suggests that the power line broke in two places on Black Saturday. In one place, nine metres from a pole, two strands snapped and the third stretched before breaking. The second break, 261 metres from the nearest pole, was ”catastrophic” – all three strands broke almost simultaneously.

”Over 70 per cent of the damage caused on Black Saturday has been caused by fires with their source as power assets,” one informed source said, on condition of anonymity.

”If those fires were eliminated, the issue of whether the CFA’s communications were up to scratch simply would not exist.”

SP Ausnet has had legal representation at the royal commission from the start, and its counsel, Jonathan Beach, has vigorously questioned the CFA and other agencies.

In July, Government counsel Allan Myers, QC, took the company to task for its line of questioning. ”A conspicuous omission [of the SP Ausnet submissions] is that there is not a single recommendation about a subject upon which they would be qualified to speak; that is, how they could change their business operations so as not to cause fires,” Mr Myers said.

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