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No charges to be laid in relation to 2020 Australian mine explosion

22 February 2022

Queensland’s Office of the Work Health and Safety Prosecutor (OWHSP) announced on February 22 that no charges would be laid in relation to the May 2020 explosion at Anglo American’s Grosvenor coal mine in Moranbah which critically injured five people. The decision has drawn criticism from the industry, including the Mining and Energy Union which said workers had been left angry.

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

Resources Safety and Health Queensland (RSHQ) had referred a brief of evidence relating to its investigation into the Grosvenor coal mine explosion to OWHSP in August 2021. The potential causes of the incident were considered by the Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry, which released a final report in May 2021. The publicly available report found that methane gas levels in the mine exceeded regulated levels 27 times in the lead up to the blast.

In a statement, OWHSP said the referral related to an alleged windblast from within the goaf – part of the mine where coal has been partially or completely removed – and a subsequent explosion on the longwall face, in which the five workers were injured. The Work Health and Safety Prosecutor, Aaron Guilfoyle, determined not to commence any prosecution in relation to the referral.

“A brief of evidence was referred to the OWHSP by RSHQ following a comprehensive investigation into the potential causes of the incident, led by RSHQ’s Coal Mining Inspectorate,” Guilfoyle said. “Having assessed the brief of evidence against the Guidelines of the Director of Public Prosecutions, I am not satisfied there exists a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction against any of the identified duty holders under the Coal Mining Safety and Health Act 1999.”

The decision to not commence any prosecution has left Queensland coal miners angered, according to the CFMEU Mining and Energy union. District President Steve Smyth said: “I am personally devastated at this decision, having worked very closely with the Grosvenor miners as they have recovered from the explosion and dealt with the fallout. I know that workers across our industry, especially those at Grosvenor mine who have just this week restarted longwall production, are angry.

“In an environment where our members get sacked for minor policy breaches, it’s deeply unfair that a management team that oversaw a mine blowing up should face no consequences whatsoever. The Board of Inquiry report outlined the mine’s repeated failure to drain dangerous gases in pace with production. Risk assessments required to control spontaneous combustion in longwall 104 was not undertaken and mining should not have occurred.”

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 mine was closed after the incident until Anglo American received confirmation from RSHQ on 16 February 2022 that longwall mining operations could recommence. Tyler Mitchelson, CEO of Anglo American’s Metallurgical Coal business, said: “We have been working towards a safe restart at Grosvenor for several months and today we are up and running having received our regulator’s approval last week. Over the past 18 months, we have worked with leading industry experts and invested significantly in automation technology, remote operations, gas management and data analytics, introducing a number of advancements in the way underground coal mines can operate. Nothing comes before safety and I thank our workforce, our local stakeholders and our customers for their patience and support as we bring Grosvenor back into production.”

The Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry report into the explosion said 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 timely 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 was 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.

“We have workplace health and safety laws that provide for prosecution where negligence leads to serious injury or death. These laws are of no use if the government is too scared to use them against mining companies like Anglo. In the strongest possible terms, we urge the Office of the Workplace Health and Safety Prosecutor to review this decision,” Steve Smyth added.

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