Unionists have slammed Hazelwood owner ENGIE over an alleged breach of the company's work plan after Earth Resources Regulation today said the company must reinstate a "competent workforce".
The resources and mining industry regulator has alleged ENGIE breached the plan - put in place to minimise risk to the community - by removing staff employed to manage the risk of a potential fire.
Gippsland Trades and Labour Council secretary Steve Dodd labelled the company's removal of staff as a "sign of contempt" which was "putting the community at serious risk".
The Express understands about a dozen workers have remained on the site since June - working between 6.45am and 5pm, leaving the hours outside of that shift with minimal fire protection.
"From our point of view they've put the community at risk, they should know what their responsibilities are. It seems like they want to do it on the cheap, at minimum cost which now puts the community in a dangerous position," Mr Dodd told The Express.
"We have had some apprehension of the de-manning of the workforce at Hazelwood for sometime with a view that we also expected they needed to have enough people there to make sure the fire controls were in place seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
"After the last devastating fire in 2014, we think to be back in this position again is untenable."
In a statement, the Earth Resources Regulator said ENGIE must reinstate a "competent workforce seven days a week, 24 hours a day to prevent, detect and extinguish mine fires".
"A reduction of staffing levels occurred without consultation with Earth Resources Regulation or the CFA," the statement read.
"Further investigation into the alleged breach will determine what sanctions, if any, are to be imposed on the operator."
The Express has been told ENGIE told workers they would be laid off during winter, with the intention to increase worker numbers by the start of summer.
Mr Dodd said the company's move to remove staff was "lacking in comprehension" and "the same situation in summer could have been a lot worse".
CFMEU organiser Duncan MacGregor said the union would meet with ENGIE representatives tomorrow to discuss the issue, and other matters in relation to the operation of the mine.
"What is pleasing is that the regulator seems to be taking a proactive stance into mine safety and community security," Mr MacGregor said.
Earth Resources Regulation's executive director Anthony Hurst said with the support of the CFA and WorkSafe, it was "holding the licensee accountable for fire safety".
"We expect mine operators to fulfil their obligations to manage risks and protect nearby communities, and we will step in when safeguards are not met," Mr Hurst said in a statement.
However in a response, ENGIE said it was "surprised" to receive notice it had allegedly breached its own work plan.
The statement said fire safety and community health were the company's priorities and disagreed it had failed to consult operational changes.
"ENGIE Hazelwood has been in ongoing discussion with Earth Resources Regulation, WorkSafe and the CFA about operational changes necessitated by ongoing rehabilitation works since early this year and we remain committed to continuing to work with all relevant regulators and the CFA to address any concerns," Hazelwood Rehabilitation Project Director Tony Innocenzi said.
"Fire monitoring and response is undertaken by mine personnel and the site emergency services provider seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
"We are reviewing the contents of the notice before making any further comment."