Mining Safety - Adjournment Debate

May 19, 2010

Legislative Council, Wednesday 19 May 2010 - 9.50pm

I rise to speak tonight about some mining issues.

I want to try to explain to people some of the operations that take place in an underground mine. I do so from some level of personal experience. I also want to identify some of the risks that are being faced in some of our mines as a result of some inappropriate activity that is taking place in those mines.

Most underground mines are allowed to lie fallow when mining has been concluded. In many cases, those mines cannot be revisited, because scale and other loose elements will be hanging from the faces of those mines, and that makes it incredibly dangerous to go back into those mines. I want to talk in particular about the OK mine at Norseman. That mine was closed by Western Mining after it gone down to a significant level—I think about the 27 level. In the process of creating that mine, a number of stopes were created. A stope is a void. It may be quite large. It may be many metres high and many metres in diameter. Once a stope has been created, it is very difficult to go back in and work that area, because the miners are working under a pillar of rock—a capstone—which can give way under any blast circumstances. So, once a stope has been mined out, people should not try to go back into that mine. As a mine is developed, declines are created that are circular in nature and that go down past the various stopes and holes in the ground. After a period of time, the entrances are backfilled, or, in some cases, the stopes are backfilled. I happened to be at the Bronzewing mine about three days before the stope collapsed and three workers were killed. So, even backfilling stopes can be particularly dangerous if it is not done well.

One of the issues is that once a stope has been created, it should be locked off and people should not go back in there. When people go down a decline that has been used previously, they mesh the walls of the tunnel and put in rock bolts. Those rock bolts may be of varying lengths, depending on the area. These days, they use rock bolts that are three metres long, which is the standard. These bolts go into the rock, and they hold the mesh against the wall so that if any rocks do fall off the wall, the mesh will hold them in place. It will still be necessary to go back and fix up the rock fall, but the rocks will not fall on people.

When people go back into an old mine, they are faced with a number of problems. One of the problems is that the mine working will have old mesh, which in many cases will be rusty, and it will have old style rock bolts, which in some cases may be only 300 millimetres long. In the case of the OK mine, work is being done on one
of the levels—I think the 12 level. In fact, the area has not been what we call rattled or scaled back. That is where the loose rock that is there from a previous working is chipped off so that new rock bolts can be put in and new fencing or constraints can be put against the rock wall. What has happened in this particular mine is that old
supplies have been left down one of the shafts. So the workers are actually moving ahead of the re-rock bolting of the deep declines to retrieve material to do the safety work. As they are doing that, they are finding, lying on the ground, plates with sections of black bolts of around 300 millimetres long. That means that the rock face is unsafe, because the old rock bolts are coming out of the wall. Many of these unfortunate people are very young and inexperienced, and they probably should not be moving ahead of the work in the way that they are. The twin boom offsiders, who are part of the drilling team, are clearly in many cases moving well ahead of the
reconfigured mine tunnels in a manner that is not permitted under the act. They are doing so to access stockpiles of bolts, plates and mesh. The service crews are expected to go way beyond what is being rehabilitated into old shafts to retrieve polythene pipe. Some of the operators have even had to go down as far as the 17 level—bearing in mind that we are talking about the 12 level, which is one of the levels on the way down—to check on the water at the bottom of the pit. The original mine that was mined by Western Mining went down to the 21 level; it is filled with water from that level to the 17 level. Dust occasionally appears up the shaft from the bottom of the mine, which indicates that there are already rock falls occurring at the bottom of the mine. This is a mine that Western Mining declared too dangerous to operate and walked away from, and Western Mining was a very competent miner in its day.

Mine management is attempting to break into an old stope—which is also rather dangerous—on what we refer to as the 237 level. If members can imagine it, somewhere outside this chamber there is a giant hole, but we do not know where it is. They do not know where it is, because when Western Mining left the mine, the units that contained all the documentation were vandalised and all the old mine plans were burnt. When the new miner took over, he had no idea where all the old workings were. He is sending drilling crews in to drill 30 metres into the wall to see if they can find the old hole. However, they are drilling forwards, sideways and upwards; they are not drilling downwards, so they do not know whether, in fact, they are actually working on top of the old stope.

These are the sorts of things that are happening at this particular mine. I am raising these points and concerns tonight for the reason that I am trying to provide some guidance and education to the house about what happens in some mining areas. My background is that I originally worked for Hancock at Wittenoom—cough, touch wood—in the old days; I then went on to work for BHP, so I have some degree of experience in mining.

One of the problems I alluded to in an article in today’s Kalgoorlie Miner is that I do not think it is corporate ethos that is the problem; I think it is actually to do with the boom. Many of the competent staff of small to medium miners are going off to the major operations in the Pilbara and picking up good work and good money there. As a result, we are unfortunately getting a whole batch of new, younger miners who are inexperienced in some of the ways of the old men of mining, and are actually being encouraged to do things that are, in my view, fundamentally very dangerous. That is not to say that the management ethos is wrong, but at the line management level, where it is all about production at any cost and where the management staff are all fairly new, duties of care that have developed out of the long experience of the traditional older miners are being lost. I will ask a question of the minister tomorrow to try to get further details about this. We must understand that mining can be an
exceptionally safe industry if it is properly managed at the occupational health and safety level. One of the issues that recently came to my attention is that if one is driving to work on a mine site and has a fatal accident, it is unfortunately not regarded as a mine accident.

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