MAC: Mines and Communities

Aotearoa/New Zealand: Coal mine explosion traps 27 workers

Published by MAC on 2010-11-22
Source: Bloomberg

Desperate rescue attempts are underway

As we go to press, rescue teams in Aotearoa/New Zealand are desperately trying to save 29 mineworkers, trapped underground at the Pike River coal mine following an explosion late last week.

If - as seems likely - the men are found dead, this tragedy will rank with the Massey Coal mine disaster earlier this year in the US, when another 29 workers lost their lives.

In fact, in terms of its direct impact on the people of Aotearoa, the loss may appear far worse, since the population of New Zealand is only 0.7% that of the United States.

Four years ago, as the Pike River mine was being "developed", a campaigner against the project noted on the MAC website that:

"[R]oads are [being] ploughed into the Paparoa National Park in order for Pike River Mining Company to establish the country's second biggest coal export mine. It intends to extract one million tonnes per annum.

"New Zealand Oil and Gas has a 69% stake in the company and Saurashtra Fuels Private (an Indian coking coal company) has a 10.6% stake.

"The plan involves an access road over 3.6 kilometres of public conservation land and mining under the Paparoa Range. It should never have been granted permission by the Minister of Conservation."

Many citizens must now be fervently echoing that view.

[Editorial note: Bloomberg recorded on 20 November: "Pike River is part-owned by India's Gujarat NRE Coke Ltd. and Saurashtra Fuels Pvt., which also take some of its low-ash, low-phosphorus coking coal, used by steelmakers."


New Zealand's First Mine Disaster in 40 Years Leaves 27 Missing


20 November 2010

New Zealand's first mining disaster in more than 40 years has left 27 miners missing and prompted concern ventilation underground may have been compromised. Two miners walked to the surface.

"Air-quality testing is being carried out because of the unknown atmospheric conditions underground," police said in a statement. Rescue teams and emergency services remain at the site of yesterday's explosion at the Pike River Coal Co. mine, they said.

The coking-coal mine is located about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Greymouth on the South Island's west coast. There has been no communication with the missing miners since the blast occurred at about 4 p.m. local time, and it's unknown whether they're trapped or sheltering, said Pike River Coal's Chief Executive Officer Peter Whittall.

The two miners who escaped said three colleagues were on their way to the surface, police said in an earlier statement.

New Zealand's last mining disaster occurred in 1967, when 19 people died in an explosion at the Strongman coal mine, also near Greymouth. Mining accidents are more common in developing countries such as China, where a gas blast rocked an underground mine in Henan province on Oct. 16, killing 37. In Chile, 33 men were rescued from a copper and gold mine last month following the world's longest mine rescue.

Mine Risk

There were no indications of "heightened risk" at the Pike River mine before the accident, according to Andrew Little, national secretary of the Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union, which represents 71 of about 140 workers at the site.

"It's only been in production for a year or so," Little said. "They delayed production because they weren't satisfied that the ventilation system was right, so they've been pretty careful about that."

Pike River is part-owned by India's Gujarat NRE Coke Ltd. and Saurashtra Fuels Pvt., which also take some of its low-ash, low-phosphorus coking coal, used by steelmakers. The mine is forecast to produce 320,000 to 360,000 metric tons of coal in the year through June, the company said Oct. 19.

Pike River shares fell 14 percent to 61 Australian cents in Sydney before they were halted from trading. The stock fell 4.4 percent to 88 New Zealand cents at the Wellington close.

Only two miners are known to have walked free from the mine, according to Sky News Australia. An earlier report of five miners emerging couldn't be confirmed.

China, the world's biggest coal producer and consumer, has the worst mine safety record, with an average of seven deaths a day in accidents last year. In Chile, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said Oct. 25 that the government will probably announce changes to health and safety rules by the end of November.

Mining employs about 6,000 people in New Zealand, according to government website The industry earned about NZ$1.1 billion ($853 million) in export receipts in 2009.

--With assistance from Ben Sharples in Melbourne and Chris Bourke in Wellington. Editors: Amanda Jordan, Tony Barrett


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