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Australian inquiry into 2020 mine explosion finds miners faced “unacceptable level of risk”

15 June 2021

An inquiry into the May 2020 explosion at Anglo American’s Grosvenor coal mine in Queensland, Australia has found that production continued despite knowledge that the gas management systems were unable to cope with the rate of production. The Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry report found that methane gas levels in the mine exceeded regulated levels 27 times in the lead up to the explosion which seriously injured five people.

The Grosvenor coal mine was closed following the blast but operations were restarted in May ahead of a staged restart following regulatory approval on April 22. The decision to restart operations had left miners “fuming” according to a union official who said that Anglo American had not kept workers informed about the plans to restart the mine, a claim disputed by the company.

The explosion on May 6 seriously injured five workers with four of the workers being airlifted to hospital in critical conditions having suffered significant burns to their upper bodies and damage to their respiratory systems. The explosion was the second safety incident at Grosvenor in the span of 15 months.

The Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry report, released on June 14, says that overly high methane levels resulted in the mine’s rate of production becoming higher than the capacity of the gas drainage system. It says that Grosvenor failed to take timey and meaningful action to control the explosive hazard posed by methane gas and that miners were therefore repeatedly exposed to unacceptable risk.

The report adds that the Queensland state regulator, Resources Safety & Health Queensland, should have been more proactive in imposing its regulations.

Another finding in the report is that there was a failure to complete a risk assessment of spontaneous combustions before work began on the section of the mine where the May incident occurred.

Among the report’s recommendations were a review of bonuses to ensure they do not discourage safety incident and injury reporting and location trackers on miners while underground.

CFMEU Mining and Energy Queensland President Stephen Smyth said the Union would review all the report’s findings and recommendations in the days and weeks ahead. In a statement, Smyth said the most shocking thing to come out of the report was the detailed account of Anglo’s failure to manage dangerous gases at Grosvenor in the months leading up to the blast.

“I felt sick reading the detail about Anglo’s recklessness,” said Mr Smyth. “Management knew there were problems following a series of high potential incidents during March and April, but did not slow coal production to match its gas drainage capacity.

“The report clearly finds that ‘coal mine workers were repeatedly subject to an unacceptable level or risk’ (Finding 58). Last year’s explosion was a shocking and traumatic event and it makes my blood run cold to think that the outcome could have been much worse. Coal mine workers put their lives in the hands of mine managers every time they go to work and they should be able to have confidence every possible measure is in place to protect them. They have been seriously let down in this case.”

Responding to the Board of Inquiry’s report, CEO of Anglo American’s Metallurgical Coal business, Tyler Mitchelson, said the company is already acting on the recommendations of the report, including $60 million of investment in safety initiatives over the last year.
“We are today committing a further $5 million to fund underground mining research, in partnership with our industry research and technology partners, to improve the industry’s knowledge in certain technical areas. We have been clear from the outset that the incident on 6 May 2020 in which five of our colleagues were badly injured was unacceptable. The safety of our workforce is always our first priority.
“Over the past 12 months, we have put in place a range of measures to address issues that have come to light through detailed investigations and evidence before the Board of Inquiry. Over this period, we have already committed more than $60 million in technology pilots, additional gas drainage infrastructure, expert reviews and further improvements to a range of processes and controls.
“The Board of Inquiry’s reports have made a number of recommendations, and we are confident we have already addressed, or will address, these ahead of the restart of longwall mining at Grosvenor Mine later this year.
“The use of automation and remote operation presents us with the single biggest opportunity to remove people from high risk areas and we are fast-tracking this work across our operations, including commissioning ground-breaking research into automation in development mining with CSIRO.”
Mitchelson said that following the implementation of the recommendations from the Board of Inquiry, the industry would be safer.

Read the Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry's report in full by clicking here.

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