MAC: Mines and Communities

Australian coal blasting stopped until risk 'acceptable'

Published by MAC on 2011-10-25
Source: The Australian

Mine blasts send toxic clouds into neighbourhoods.

The Queensland government in Australia has suspended blasting operations at a coal mine  accused of having caused toxic gases to fall on a residential neighbourhood.

Editorial comment: Not only do these gases pose major health threats to communities living close to mines, nitrous oxides (NOx) are the fourth largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as being responsible for the formation of acid rain.

Mine blasting stopped until risk 'acceptable'

Jared Owens

The Australian

7 October 2011

THE Queensland government has suspended blasting operations at the New Acland coal mine, west of Brisbane, as details emerged suggesting operators reshaped the safe exclusion zone around a potentially toxic cloud of matter that drifted near a public road.

State law requires mine operators to report to authorities when their blast fumes drift outside the pre-fixed exclusion zones, as the orange cloud of oxides and nitrogen gas produced on September 5 would have done. But New Hope Coal, under investigation by the state's mines division, regarded the blast as successful and reported no breach.

The company was yesterday issued a directive ordering that all blasting activities at the mine cease indefinitely after The Australian revealed that mines across Queensland were regularly emitting toxic clouds during poorly performing blasting operations and detailed the Acland mine incident.

"The directive suspending blasting operations will remain in place until mine management can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the issuing mines inspector that it has implemented actions to ensure blasting operations are conducted at an acceptable level of risk," a spokesman for the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation said.

The department disputed New Hope Coal's claim this week that a mine operator could monitor a toxic plume in the air and adjust its exclusion zone accordingly.

In a statement to The Australian on Monday, chief operating officer Bruce Denney said the blast fume "was closely monitored and the exclusion zone was extended as the plume drifted to the west".

"From the moment of firing the blast, to giving the all clear signal for the blast guards to stand down, it took 11 minutes and 47 seconds," Mr Denney said.

The DEEDI spokesman said yesterday any blast was "a short duration event over minutes so there is no time to alter the risk-based pre-determined zones . . . The exclusion zone cannot be changed instantly."

Yesterday, Mr Denney agreed that blast exclusion zones were in fact immovable. "While the blast exclusion zone is set and caters primarily for flyrock, the fume management zone is moved as required to cater for short-term changes in conditions," he said.

When asked if the exclusion zone was adjusted to avoid the requirement to report the breach, Mr Denney said the blast fume on September 5 was reported to the department that day.

It is understood New Hope's report did not say the fume breached the initial exclusion zone. New Hope last night did not respond to questions about the characteristics of a "fume management zone".

Queensland locals fuming as mine blasts send toxic clouds into neighbourhood

Rory Callinan

The Australian

5 October 2011

CLOUDS of toxic gas are regularly billowing out of Queensland's giant open-cut coalmines from explosive blasts but neighbouring residents say they are not being warned about the dangers of these "fume events".

Official data reveals that since January, the fumes - "oxides of nitrogen" that have caused deaths and injuries at and near mines overseas - have reportedly travelled outside safe exclusion zones 33 times at 16 Queensland coalmines. However, official bodies have not alerted neighbouring residents and farmers to the presence of the toxic fumes because the Queensland government says they are dissipating before posing any health threat.

This year, 62 miners have required medical observation as a result of being exposed to the fumes from blasts at several mines, according to the mines section of the state Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation. Several were taken to hospital "as a precautionary measure".

In the most recent incident, the department is understood to have received an unsubstantiated report of a blast fume travelling 14km from the Foxleigh Mine in the Bowen Basin in central Queensland on September 9.

In March, the department briefly suspended operations at two mines in the Bowen Basin because of significant fume incidents. More than 100 detonations take place at coalmines every week in Queensland.

The state is in the grip of a resource boom that has sparked a row between farmers, residents and mining and resources companies for land access.

This week The Australian obtained photographs taken inside a mine site purporting to show a cloud of the gas from a blast at New Hope's Acland Mine, about 150km west of Brisbane, on September 5. The photographs are being examined by the mines section of the department, which says it is awaiting an official report into the incident at the mine, which is bordered by farms and the near-abandoned settlement of Acland.

The evidence of the gas has raised grave fears among residents, with the local anti-mine expansion group Oakey Coal Action Alliance describing the fume incident as "very worrying".

Alliance chairman Peter Faulkner said if the fumes seen in the photographs were from the southern part of the mine and moved west with the wind, "then those people and their kids who live in that area are going to be copping those fumes".

New Hope chief operating officer Bruce Denney said the photograph obtained by The Australian was taken in the centre of the mine, and the gas had not gone outside the exclusion zone. He said the fumes "went over" the Acland-Muldu Road, a public road on the boundary of the mine. The plume was "about 50m up in the air and had dissipated by the time it left the boundary of the mine" and the exclusion zone had been extended as the fumes drifted with the wind. "One resident was contacted because they may have seen the fume and wondered what it was, but they were not in its path," he said.

Andrew Winckle, accounts manager for contractor Maxam Australia, which undertook the blasting at Acland on September 5, said the fume cloud lifted above ground levels well before leaving the mine lease and posed no danger to the public or livestock.

Residents near the mine said they had seen a number of orange-coloured clouds over the mine in recent months, but had not been warned they could contain toxic gas.

Tanya Plant, who lives on a farm next to the mine, said someone from the mine left a message on her phone on September 5 to say there would be "a fume" but said nothing about it being potentially harmful.

"I am worried about the potential health and impact on my children and disappointed the mine has so far refused to let us know in advance which blasts are likely to cause these fume events," she said.

Wendy Wilson, who lives part-time on the Plants' property, said she had photographed orange and yellow clouds over the mine on several occasions this year.

In March, the department issued a safety alert to the industry about the fumes, warning that in 2006 an explosives expert in the Philippines had fallen into a cavity at a mine after a blast and had died the following day from pulmonary oedema from gas poisoning. It said the fumes could be released as a result of wet conditions and from incorrect fuel-to-oxygen ratio in explosives, insufficient priming, acidic soils and the presence of pyrites in the ground.

The department yesterday defended its regulation of the mines and handling of the fume risks. A spokesman said the Mines Inspectorate gave a directive suspending operations at the Saraji and Peak Downs mines in the Bowen Basin for the fume events on March 6. He said these incidents prompted the government to establish the tripartite steering group to develop new shot-firing guidelines. The spokesman said the suspensions at both mines were removed on March 16 after management demonstrated to the satisfaction of the investigating inspector they could conduct blasting operations at an acceptable level of risk to workers.

He said all explosions generated toxic gases but fewer than 2 per cent resulted in a "fume event".

This means there could be as many as two a week in Queensland.

An Anglo American spokeswoman said: "Anglo American reports fume events that may infrequently occur during mine site blasting activities to the Mines Inspectorate as required".

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