A Powercor maintenance chief has admitted that if the pole that started The Sisters/Garvoc bushfire was tested under new inspection regime forced by community pressure it would have been immediately replaced.
Matthew Settle was giving evidence in the Supreme Court trial involving victims of the bushfire taking action against Electricity giant Powercor and and inspection subcontractor Electrix.
A rotten termite damaged pole No. 4 on the Sparrow Spur line at The Sisters snapped on March 17 last year, causing a bushfire, one of four main fires sparked on St Patrick's Day in the south-west caused by electrical infrastructure.
Under cross-examination by Francis Tiernan, QC, Mr Settle agreed that if a sound wood reading of between just 10 millimetres and 40 millimetres on pole No. 4 had been detected that it would have been marked for immediate replacement within 24 hours.
"Yes, at that reading, yes," he said.
According to experts the thinnest part of the pole could have been just 5mm thick and it was put to Mr Settle if that was known the pole should have been classified for immediate attention.
"Based on that thin wood - based on that measurement, yes. Yes."
Mr Settle said there was confidence that the Powercor inspection system delivered an accurate assessment despite inspections having no historical data on poles.
He said there could be an opportunity to review inspectors not having the data and he also admitted not knowing all the testing requirements and that there was inconsistent wording in the inspection instructions.
Mr Settle said that under the old State Electricity Commission of Victoria there had been 12-month inspections for limited life wooden poles but that ceased under Powercor.
However, he did not agreed that there was a need for intervention on decaying poles when they were approaching the end of their life, surprisingly saying there was still an opportunity to replace poles.
He said the decision made in 2019 to add the additional inspection cycles, was not made on an engineering basis.
"It was made at the top of the organisation with an altered risk appetite from our CEO and senior leadership team to look at opportunities that they had to make some changes in early 2019 to alleviate community concerns and to make some movements that we could do to give greater assurance to the community that Powercor's poles were safe, but it wasn't driven by engineering analysis," he said.
Mr Settle agreed the changes to a more conservative approach were made to the inspection regime after The Sisters/Garvoc fire.
When it was put to Mr Settle that testing showed another five poles demonstrated severe decay, similar to pole No. 4, he said: "I think there's always an opportunity to look for avenues to improve".
In relation to Powercor experiencing 17 times as many pole failures and seven times more crossarm failures than AusNet, Mr Settle said: "We weren't convinced that we were comparing apples and apples".
He said Powercor needed a robust system for inspecting pole conditions and the distributor was planning for a significant increase in replacement numbers as the pole population reached end of life in the coming regulatory periods.
"My team has put up a proposal to start to address that issue in the coming regulatory period," he said.
The court has heard that Powercor has a network of 567,000 poles.
In 2017 Powercor put in place just 1153 new poles, despite the majority of its poles reaching the end of their expected life span.
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