MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining disaster returns to Wales

Published by MAC on 2011-09-19
Source: Western Mail, The Scotsman, BBC Wales (2011-09-17)

Last week, four coal miners went to their deaths, overwhelmed by floodwaters three hundred feet underground in the Gleision colliery, South Wales.

It was the biggest tragedy of its kind for the Welsh nation (Cymru) in more than two decades - perhaps rendered more tragic since just eight men had been working in the shaft at the time. (According to UK Health and Safety Executive statistics, seven people have been killed in British mining accidents since 2006).

Just 45 years ago Wales suffered the second worst UK mining disaster since 1913; and one of the most appalling anywhere during the past century.

At 9.15 am on Friday, October 21 1966, coal tailings slid down a mountainside into the village of Aberfan near Merthyr Tydfil - only 30 miles from the Gleision site.

After destroying a farm cottage in its path and killing all the occupants, the 40-foot high slurry thundered into the Pantglas Junior School, where children had just returned to classes after singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful" at their assembly.

The wastes engulfed the school and crushed 20 other buildings before coming to rest. Of the 144 people buried alive in the disaster, no fewer than 116 were children.

There's little question that the people of Wales (population: just over 3 million) have borne an egregious share of the deadly historical burden of extracting Britain's coal.

Under the "iron rule" of Margaret Thatcher-  that global pioneer of privatisation and de-regulation - most of the country's state-owned deep pits had closed down by 1995.

However, several continued operating under private management, despite failures to significantly improve working conditions and guard against the collapse of older tunnels.

Gleision was such an operation. Understandably, the family of one of last week's victims, David Powell, has called for the pit to be shut down and sealed for ever.

Deep and disturbing

At several points in Britain's industrial history the National Union of Mineworkers (still "alive" today, though severely crippled after mine privatisation) proved to be one of the most powerful, best-organised, radical labour movements in the country.

But, though the union made considerable progress during the last century in enforcement of safety regulations and gaining employee benefits, fatalities continued to occur.

At mines managed by the state-owned National Coal Board in the twelve years following the Aberfan disaster (1967-1979), no fewer than sixty eight people died in eight major accidents - one of which occurred in Wales.*  See: http://www.cmhrc.co.uk/cms/document/1963_79.pdf

For much of the past century numerous commentators were evaluating the "true price of coal" in terms of  massive losses in human life, numerous serious injuries, and contraction of incurable lung diseases by miners. 

Nonetheless, these were costs  that most inhabitants of mining-dependent towns and villages were prepared to bear. (Or so the sub-text had it).

The communities were defending an honourable tradition; they followed in the footsteps of their forefathers (often literally); they were powering the nation's prosperity. In many cases, going "down the pit" was the only realistic way to earn a living wage.  

The Gleision tragedy could now mark the end of a particularly hazardous type of small-scale coal extraction - one that has been endured for far too long.

UK coal industry isn't about to collapse

But this doesn't mean the industry itself is close to collapse. According to the UK government, as of 2010 there were 33 surface mines and 6 major deep mines in production in the country.

Employed in the deep mine sector were 3,548 workers, as against 2,472 in open-cast mines; the former producing 7.4 million tonnes and the latter 9.77 million tonnes of coal.

So-called "indigenous coal production" still supports around 10% of all UK electricity generation.

Proposals to open new, or expand existing, UK open-cast coal sites continue being made, though meeting vigorous local opposition at every turn.

Miners lives may be safer as a result. But the overall health of mining-impacted communities is still put at significant risk.

[Commentary by Nostromo Research, 18 September 2011].

* For further insight into the many decades of British coal mining, and its human and social social consequences, please go to the extremely informative Coal Mining History Resource Centre website at:

http://www.cmhrc.co.uk/site/home/index.html

Welsh mine tragedy: Families' grief as last of the four men is found dead

Richard Smith and David Collins

The Scotsman

17 September 2011

Shattered relatives were left grief-stricken and traumatised yesterday after all four men trapped in a flooded mine were found dead.

The tragic price of coal
The tragic price of coal: Kyla Hill's message at Gleision mine

Three were found close to where they had been working when thousands of gallons of water deluged the narrow mine - dubbed a "rat-hole" - on Thursday morning.

Rescue workers believe the fourth miner may have died while following two of the three survivors to safety.

It was a day of unimaginable torment for the four men's relatives, who were forced to wait for news in a local community centre while 200 rescue workers searched tirelessly for their loved ones.

The first body was found early yesterday morning, the second at 12.15pm, the third at 3pm and the fourth and final body was confirmed dead just after 6pm.

Tributes were last night paid to the four victims - David Powell, 50, Charles Breslin, 62, Garry Jenkins, 39, and Phillip Hill, 45.

Local Labour MP Peter Hain described the tragedy as a "stab through the heart" for the stunned South Wales community. He said last night: "This is the end we all feared but hoped would never happen.

"The families showed extraordinary courage through these tortuous hours - first finding one and then another and not knowing who they were.

"We cannot even imagine what these families have been through. This is a stab through the heart of the local community."

One miner was found dead by divers in deep water 250 metres from the Gleision mine entrance in the Swansea Valley.

Three more victims were found close together 50 metres deeper into the mine where they either blasted or dug into the pit, causing thousands of gallons of water to swamp the shaft.

The mine has suffered serious water problems in the past and an investigation was last night under way into the cause of the tragedy.

The victims' friends and loved ones were in shock last night.

David Powell, a dad of four from the nearby village of Godre'r Graig, was working in the mine along with his son Daniel when disaster struck.

Daniel, 26, managed to escape the torrent with two other pitmen. For two days, he had been waiting agonisingly for news with his mum Lynette, 49, at the Rhos Community Centre, two miles from the pit entrance.

A family friend said: "Danny idolises his dad and loved working next to him. He managed to get out but it is ripping him apart that his dad didn't make it.

"It was his dad's 50th birthday last month and the family went away to a caravan for a party on the Carmarthen coast."

David - known to his friends as Dai Bull - was the pit's maintenance engineer and was fully aware of the serious water problems underground at the colliery.

Neighbour Alan Picton, 39, said: "David knew the inside of that mine like the back of his hand.

"He had worked there for a long time. My grandad used to say it was like a rabbit warren down there with tunnels everywhere.

"But David would have known the safest places to go on or off the charts. He was old school, a tough cookie."

Charlie Breslin, who leaves a widow, Mavis, was another highly experienced miner.

A pal said: "Charlie had done his time and he didn't need to be there but he wanted to stay busy. It is a small mine - some people would call it a rat hole and they wouldn't be wrong. It is 5ft by 5ft down there. It is an old mine but they were working through onto another old mine."

Garry Jenkins, who had only recently taken up a job at the mine, was yesterday described as a "fantastic mate who would lay down his life for his friends".

A friend said: "If you had to be in a hole with anyone it would be Gar. He was a great guy who would do anything to help a mate in trouble."

Garry's partner Sarah Hansen, 34, was last night being comforted by family at the couple's home in the Swansea Valley.

Garry revealed on Facebook in February that he had been made redundant from a previous job and was looking for work.

Phillip Hill's parents Peter and Margaret were also last night with relatives at home in Neath. A friend said: "Phil was a really nice bloke who really enjoyed being a miner."

Mine manager Malcolm Fyfield, 56, escaped from the tragedy by crawling 800ft to safety along a series of small secondary mine shafts full of slurry and debris.

It took him two hours to reach the surface and he collapsed in the open air after suffering head injuries.

The dad-of-two was yesterday in a critical condition in hospital where he is in a medically induced coma with wife Gillian at his bedside.

Malcolm was in charge when the miners' work triggered the flood of water from old workings, sending thousands of gallons into the shaft.

A friend said: "Malcolm is a very brave and committed man. He was still conscious when he came out.

"He said he had to part-swim and part-walk through the water which was just sludge, slurry and filthy. He was exhausted and just collapsed when he came out. It is amazing that he is alive, amazing."

A neighbour said: "Malcolm has been in mining all his life and lives for it. He is very experienced and would know what he is doing.

"His son Richard is also in mining and has been down at the rescue operation to see if he can help."

Miner Mark Lloyd, 45, also managed to escape unhurt because he was carrying equipment closer to the main entrance.

South Wales Police chief constable Peter Vaughan said last night: "The support we've had has been truly humbling.

"We've had messages not just from Wales and the UK but from all over the world. Unfortunately the conclusion we have is the one that none of us wanted."

The tragedy is the worst UK mining disaster since 10 men died in an explosion at Golborne, Lancashire, in 1979.


Mining - Still a Risky Business

by Robin Turner

Western Mail

16 September 2011

Mining accidents in which workers are trapped generate headlines across the world.

In August 2010 hundreds of millions watched on TV as it was announced 33 miners were trapped underground by a cave-in at the San José copper and gold mine located deep in Chile's Atacama Desert.

After two weeks communication was made with them but at least four more months would pass before they could finally be freed.

The dramatic, televised rescues began on October 12, 2010, the miners being raised in bullet shaped capsules having been given dark glasses to avoid retinal damage due to sudden exposure to sunlight.

From 1850 to 1930 the South Wales coalfield had some of the worst disaster records in the world due to the increasing number of mines being sunk plus poor safety and management practices.

The worst accidents were:

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Analysis

Nick Servini, BBC Wales business correspondent

17 September 2011

The Gleision Colliery employed eight people and is thought to have produced a few hundred tonnes of coal a week.

The high quality anthracite coal mined here can be sold now for more than £200 a tonne, which has risen by around a third over the past three years.

Mining union officials say although there have been problems with water at the pit in the past, they say that is not out of the ordinary for a mine of this size.

Industry veterans have also spoken of the work being done in small pits of this kind as being relatively unchanged from the work done decades ago because tight spaces make it impossible to get large machinery to the coalface.

However they also said there would still be significant improvements in areas like ventilation inside the shafts.

Phil White, a former director of Tower Colliery, the last deep pit in Wales before it closed, said no matter how much you improve safety "when you are in the bowels of the earth anything can happen".

The events in the Swansea Valley have acted as a reminder of an industry which was once dominant in Wales, as well as a stark reminder of the inevitable dangers that accompany it.

HSE specialist mine inspectors are on site working closely with the police.

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