Secret Powercor maintenance report reveals failings

Snapped: The rotten termite ravaged pole No. 4 on the Sparrow Spur line that broke off in high winds and sparked The Sisters/Garvoc bushfire on St Patrick's Day.
Snapped: The rotten termite ravaged pole No. 4 on the Sparrow Spur line that broke off in high winds and sparked The Sisters/Garvoc bushfire on St Patrick's Day.

An explosive secret Powercor report reveals the electricity giant knows it has a flawed pole inspection regime for its ageing system and doesn't investigate or report all its pole failures.

The existence of the reliability-centred maintenance report dated October 28, 2019, only came to light during cross-examination of Powercor's maintenance chief Matthew Settle during a damages case in the Supreme Court late last week.

There are 189 victims of The Sisters/Garvoc bushfire taking action for compensation against Powercor and inspection subcontractor Electrix after a rotten, termite-ravaged wooden pole snapped on St Patrick's Day last year sparking the blaze.

Barrister for the victims Francis Tiernan, QC, called for the secret report to be provided during hearings last week and Powercor was given a deadline of 3pm Friday.

Judge Timothy Ginnane was told the report was provided at 2.59pm. Barristers for the victims examined it over the weekend.

Time for action: State energy minister Lily D'Ambrosio has been called on to take action against Powercor after a secret report revealed massive problems in the electricity giant. Picture: Morgan Hancock

Time for action: State energy minister Lily D'Ambrosio has been called on to take action against Powercor after a secret report revealed massive problems in the electricity giant. Picture: Morgan Hancock

The report is so damning that Powercor's barristers have now organised for negotiations to be held on Wednesday in an attempt to settle the case.

It was revealed on Monday during the hearing that the report said there had been 384 pole failures and Mr Tiernan called for details of all those incidents during the past decade to be provided.

The report says mountain grey gum poles, like the 54-year-old pole No. 4 on the Sparrow Spur line which caused the bushfire at The Sisters, need to be inspected more frequently once becoming 50 years old.

Spotlight: Powercor chief executive officer Tim Rourke's electricity giant is under the microscope after a secret report has been revealed during a Supreme Court trial involving victims of The Sisters/Garvoc bushfire.

Spotlight: Powercor chief executive officer Tim Rourke's electricity giant is under the microscope after a secret report has been revealed during a Supreme Court trial involving victims of The Sisters/Garvoc bushfire.

The court was previously told the pole was visually checked four months before the fire in an inspection estimated by a victim's barrister to have taken as little as 90 seconds.

Five other nearby poles were later removed by Powercor and found to be in similar decayed conditions.

That was after The Sisters dairy farmer Jill Porter organised independent testing of poles on and near her property that found pole No. 2 on the same line could be seen-through, such was the decay.

According to testimony in the case, the secret report said data "indicated the inspection process was not adequately detecting or managing a condition-based problem, a small but important portion of the time".

It has also been found the reliability centred maintenance review was to be conducted every five years but the report dated October 28 this year was the first sine 2005.

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Mr Settle, Powercor's maintenace chief, told the court the company had changed good wood pole standards and inspection regimes to appease community unrest after four main bushfires were caused by electrical infrastructure in the south-west on St Patrick's Day last year.

The electricity giant also undertook an audit of 19,000 poles across the south-west and found no systemic issues.

Independent regulator Energy Safe Victoria also conducted an audit which found the Powercor system was "fit for purpose".

Mrs Porter on Tuesday said that was now clearly not the case and called on Victorian Energy Minister Lily D'Ambrosio to step in. She also called for the secret Powercor report to be publicly released.

"ESV has again proven to be a completely ineffective regulator overseeing an electricity distributor which has been caught out trying to hide its own highly damning report," she said.

"We, the victims of bushfires started by Powercor's electrical infrastructure, have repeatedly called for action from Ms D'Ambrosio and she has so far done nothing to ensure another pole doesn't snap.

"Surely now something has to be done about Powercor by the state government, in line with the Black Saturday bushfire royal commission findings, to do everything possible to make communities like mine safe."

A spokeswoman for Ms D'Ambrosio said it would be inappropriate to comment because the matter was before the courts.

Powercor has 567,000 poles, most more than 50 years old and have reached their life expectancy.

In 2017 the company put in 1153 new poles - a fraction of one per cent.

This story Secret report reveals power giant's failings first appeared on The Standard.