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Vol. 74/No. 46      December 6, 2010

New Zealand: 29 are trapped
in coal mine amid speedup
(front page)
AUCKLAND, New Zealand, November 22—A massive explosion ripped through the Pike River coal mine November 19. Four days later there has still been no contact with 29 miners trapped underground.

Two other miners, who had been some distance from the blast, were able to struggle to the surface after initially being knocked unconscious and overcome by carbon monoxide. It is thought that faulty ventilation systems led to a buildup of methane gas that ignited.

Police and mining officials refused to allow mine rescue teams to enter the mine, saying that high gas levels posed the risk of another explosion. Some coworkers and families of the missing miners urged officials to allow the rescue crews in.

According to Daniel Rockhouse, one of the two miners who escaped, the missing miners were almost two miles into the mine and the blast probably happened almost half a mile behind them.

The Pike River mine is in the Paparoa mountain range 30 miles northeast of Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The region has been the center of coal mining in this country for more than a century.

Rising demand for high quality coking coal for steel production in China and India has seen a profit-driven push to accelerate the extraction of coal, with old mines being reworked and existing mines expanded. A little more than 10 miles from Pike River is the former Brunner mine, where 65 miners were killed in an explosion in 1896, the country’s worst mining disaster; and the Strongman mine, where 19 miners were killed in 1967.

Pike River is a new mine that began shipping to Asia last year. It dispatched its first shipment of premium hard coking coal in February. An underground road tunnel, over a mile long, travels into the hillside to where mining begins. From the beginning the project has been marked by failure to meet construction schedules and over-ambitious production targets. As well, potentially explosive methane gas was found in greater volumes than expected as tunnelers neared the mine seam.

Behind schedule, and with funding due to run out in December, the company had sought to ratchet up production over recent weeks. It had just installed the first of two main underground fans to increase ventilation, enabling it to begin using hydraulic monitors, large water cannons that blast coal from the face.

Speaking to reporters November 22, Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said that there had been no concerns leading up to the mine explosion. But others told a different story.

An Australian mine engineer with connections to the Pike River mine told the New Zealand Herald that operating standards were “extremely poor” and that miners had “severe concerns about safety.” He said there had been a number of incidents where methane had reached high levels over the past year.

“Two to three weeks ago the mine fans were out and the whole mine was gassed out,” he said, and “it took 20 hours to clear the mine.”

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn told reporters November 21, “I have heard regularly over the last two or three years that this mine is unsafe, there’s far too much gas, there’s going to be a disaster here one day.”

Responding to a rising number of deaths and accidents in mines over recent years, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, which organizes coal miners, has been calling for a return to the practice of government-appointed mine inspectors who are onsite at all times during mining and who check safety on each shift. The practice was dropped about 20 years ago.
Related articles:
Deaths in U.S. mines rise despite gov’t ‘safety’ plan  
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