Mam­moth mine crip­pled by dis­turb­ing un­der­ground fires

The Courier-Mail - - OPINION -

IFEAR for the safety of blokes in this state who work in un­der­ground min­ing.

It can be deadly. The hor­rors be­came vivid for me in 1972 when I was sent to an un­der­ground coal mine at Box Flat near Ip­swich to re­port on an un­der­ground ex­plo­sion that en­tombed 17 men there. I was still a teenager.

An 18th man later died as a re­sult of shock­ing in­juries he suf­fered in the blast.

Then in 1975, it hap­pened again. Thir­teen more brave min­ers per­ished at Kianga No.1 mine in cen­tral Queens­land in an un­der­ground ex­plo­sion.

In 1994, a sim­i­lar tragedy hap­pened about 20km away at Moura No.2, where 11 men died.

It was about that time I be­came one of the last civil­ians to take the lift 1km un­der­ground at Mt Isa to in­spect Ore Body 3000.

The jour­ney seemed to take for­ever. “We are get­ting close to Hell now,” the lift op­er­a­tor said.

Later, vis­i­tors to Mt Isa were banned from go­ing so far down for safety rea­sons.

The po­ten­tial dan­gers of un­der­ground min­ing were high­lighted again this week when it was con­firmed that spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion fires had shut Pe­abody En­ergy’s North Goonyella mine in the Bowen Basin, 160km west of Mackay.

A fire in a long­wall cave 500m un­der­ground may have been burn­ing for a month now, says John Nin­ness, a min­ing safety con­sul­tant.

He has strong crit­i­cisms of Pe­abody in the ar­ti­cle he penned for the au­thor­i­ta­tive Aus­tralasian Mine Safety Jour­nal.

He says the in­dus­try has been told very lit­tle about the lead-up to the fires, and he won­ders whether they could have been pre­vented.

But Nin­ness re­serves his sharpest crit­i­cism for the Queens­land Gov­ern­ment, which he ac­cuses of a “cover-up”.

He says the spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion of gases and coal dust in un­der­ground min­ing is a con­stant worry.

Are min­ers who bravely work below the earth’s sur­face ever truly safe? “That’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion,” he says.

North Goonyella is im­por­tant be­cause it con­tains one of the largest re­serves of high-strength cok­ing coal on the planet.

Last year and the year be­fore it de­liv­ered nearly three mil­lion tonnes of coal.

About 225 min­ers have been stood down on full pay while the mess is sorted out.

I’m told roughly the same num­ber of pri­vate con­trac­tors have been let go, from a source familiar with the mine. There are 13 un­der­ground coal mines in this state. Queens­land is the heart­land of the Aus­tralian coal-min­ing in­dus­try that pumps bil­lions into the econ­omy from roy­al­ties and taxes. Pe­abody is an Amer­i­can com­pany head­quar­tered in St Louis, Mis­souri. That said, its North Goonyella mine pro­vides $700 mil­lion in eco­nomic ben­e­fit to Aus­tralia each year, a spokes­woman says. There are a dozen new mines – open cut and un­der­ground – in the plan­ning stages in Queens­land. Coal re­mains es­sen­tial for this na­tion’s power gen­er­a­tion, and we would have cat­a­strophic black­outs and in­dus­try shut­downs if we tried to rely on so­lar and wind power alone. Nin­ness worked in mine safety for the State Gov­ern­ment in two stretches un­til 2005 and be­lieves he has v vis­ited at least 50 mines. He says there have been nu­mer­ous “crit­i­cal heat­ing events” in un­der­ground mines in the past two decades. Nin­ness stresses he is not ac­cus­ing Pe­abody of any safety breaches. “When­ever you cut coal, it gets hot,” he says. “They (Pe­abody) pulled the peo­ple out im­me­di­ately w when they saw on the in­di­ca­tors the mine was on fire.” How­ever, he won­ders whether w State Gov­ern­ment safety watch­dogs have been proac­tive p enough and why in­for­ma­tion about pos­si­ble dan­gers has not been shared. Min­is­ter for Mines An­thony Lyn­ham hints that the mine may not re­open.

The whole story doesn’t add up Min­ing safety con­sul­tant John Nin­ness

“De­tails as to the mine’s fu­ture op­er­a­tion are a mat­ter for Pe­abody,” he says.

Lyn­ham says the Queens­land Mines In­spec­torate would in­ves­ti­gate “the na­ture and cause of the un­der­ground fire at North Goonyella mine”.

“The Mines In­spec­torate has been on site at North Goonyella since last month when the op­er­a­tor Pe­abody En­ergy ad­vised the in­spec­torate of el­e­vated gas lev­els,” he says.

“My Chief In­spec­tor of Mines and Pe­abody En­ergy have briefed me reg­u­larly about the chang­ing sit­u­a­tion at the mine, in par­tic­u­lar mea­sures to en­sure the safety of per­son­nel.

“I am ad­vised that Pe­abody has a spe­cial­ist crew on site bring­ing the un­der­ground fire un­der con­trol.’’

Pe­abody Aus­tralia says the safety of work­ers is paramount.

“Our gas mon­i­tor­ing and safety sys­tems are de­signed specif­i­cally for these types of events, and de­tected the el­e­vated lev­els of gas in a timely man­ner,” a spokesman says.

A Pe­abody source says a team at the mine is pump­ing ni­tro­gen into the trou­ble spots to starve any fire of oxy­gen. Union­ists re­main di­vided. One tells me to ex­pect the usual “white­wash”.

Luke Lud­low, the North Goonyella union lodge pres­i­dent, told mem­bers in a cir­cu­lar there had been “mas­sive spikes” in lev­els of dan­ger­ous and volatile gases.

“To sum­marise, our mine is not in a good way and the re­al­ity of seal­ing a third long­wall in our mine is right in front of us un­less we have some mirac­u­lous change in cir­cum­stance in the com­ing days,” he wrote.

Nin­ness re­mains con­cerned.

“There are unan­swered ques­tions,” he says.

“The whole story doesn’t add up.

“And for the Queens­land Gov­ern­ment to go silent just doesn’t make sense.”

RISKY BUSI­NESS: The fu­ture is un­cer­tain for long­wall coal min­ing at North Goonyella mine (left), 160km west of Mackay in Queens­land’s Bowen Basin.

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