‘Cover-up’ claims after mine crippled by fires
I FEAR 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 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 when they saw on the indicators the mine was on fire."
However, he wonders whether State Government safety watchdogs have been proactive enough and why information about possible dangers has not been shared.
Minister for Mines Anthony Lynham hints that the mine may not reopen.
"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."