Selby residents thankful for a cold summer after powerline faults revealed

AusNet was fined for the installation of an uninsulated, high-voltage powerline in Selby State Forest. (Supplied)

By Gabriella Vukman

A Hills resident is fuming at Australian energy provider AusNet for the installation of an uninsulated, high-voltage powerline in Selby Bushland Reserve.

The area of installation marks one of the State’s highest bushfire risk areas, putting thousands of residents in danger.

Selby resident Margaret worries that the $200,000 AusNet must cough up due to their negligence is not nearly enough.

“My personal thing is, and it’s too late now because it has all gone through the supreme court, but if they had to pay damages of a lowly $200,000 which is nothing for them, surely some of that money should have been punitive damages and surely it should have come to our local CFAs up here in the Dandenongs,” she said.

“When I saw what they did to us, I realised they left us exposed in the Selby bushland area all through the summer off 22-23 and then when they found out, it took them 47 days to rectify it. We are so lucky it was a cool summer.”

“There’s nothing we can do about it but it’s just horrible that AusNet and the like get away with this.”

Margaret discovered AusNet’s illegal activity by chance when she happened to google the electricity distributor’s website.

Informing residents straight away through a Selby community Facebook group, Margaret was astonished that her local CFA had no idea about the installation.

“I found out on Friday night and I alerted our Selby community page on Facebook and from the responses I’ve had, people are furious. They left us so exposed and we just didn’t know about it,” Margaret said.

“For AusNet to go and stuff up like they did and put us at risk, it’s just like being hit in the face. It is really awful,” she said.

“I thought surely the CFA should know about it but they had no clue.”

Expressing concern about the lack of information for the citizens of Selby and surrounding areas, Margaret said “we’re furious. We try to do everything we can to protect ourselves.”

“It’s really how these things are swept under the carpet and we don’t hear about them,” Margaret said.

“A risk like that and then we still don’t get to hear anything about it until the report comes out at the end. It’s infuriating. I feel so sorry for all those CFA guys. What if something had happened this summer?”

After constructing a 34-metre stretch of bare powerline along the heavily shrubbed Bushland Reserve in Selby just over two years ago, the electricity distributor was sued by Energy Safe Victoria for disobeying energy laws.

AusNet was in further trouble for failing to act on their illegal powerline placement, taking 47 days to correct the issue after it was discovered.

By law, a major electricity company must cover or place underground each new powerline that meets certain specifications when the line is being constructed in Victoria’s highest risk bushfire areas.

Energy Safe chief executive officer Leanne Hughson said said AusNet left the community exposed to increased bushfire risk for more than a year.

“If it had started a fire the consequences could have been catastrophic,” she said.

“History shows it only takes one powerline to cause a fire that can devastate a community and it’s simply unacceptable for a major company like AusNet to put the public’s safety at risk.”

Energy Safe Victoria said an internal AusNet document showed that the installation of powerlines in the highest bushfire risk areas did not “accurately reflect the requirements of the electricity safety legislation.”

“AusNet’s systems checks were not sufficient to identify its breach at the time. The breach was detected later during a review of network data,” a spokesperson said.

“The penalty of $200,000 was at the higher end of the range available for this breach, with the court finding it was appropriate given a number of factors including the community’s exposure to an increased bushfire risk.”

The court heard the situation could have been avoided entirely if AusNet had better systems and checks in place. The company has since taken steps to prevent the issue from happening again.

“Major electricity companies have a duty to operate and maintain their networks in a way that removes or mitigates bushfire risks as far as practicable,” the spokesperson said.

“Companies must underground or insulate replacement lines when more than four consecutive spans of existing powerline in the highest bushfire risk areas need to be replaced. There have also been government-funded programs to underground some lines.”

The civil proceeding was issued in mid-March 2024 and finalised on 2 July 2024 in the Supreme Court of Victoria. AusNet admitted liability early in the proceeding.

The court ordered AusNet to pay $200,000 and to update all relevant internal technical documents to ensure they accurately reflect legal requirements.

Justice Stynes said the court orders may deter AusNet and other major electricity companies from breaching electricity safety laws.