Northern Miner Editorial: New Zealand in Mourning – by John Cumming

The Northern Miner, first published in 1915, during the Cobalt Silver Rush, is considered Canada’s leading authority on the mining industry. Editor John Cumming MSc (Geol) is one of the country’s most well respected mining journalists. jcumming@northernminer.com This editorial is reproduced with permission of The Northern Miner and is from the November 29- December 5, 2010 issue.

Tragedy has descended on the normally idyllic West Coast region of New Zealand’s South Island, where an underground explosion has killed 29 miners at the Pike River coking coal mine, located halfway between Greymouth and Reefton.

The first of two explosions happened on Nov. 19 at 3:50 pm local time. It trapped 29 miners underground at least 2.5 km from the portal, but still allowed two dazed men working in a different area from the others to escape to surface.

There was no contact from the trapped miners after 4:15 pm that day, and the blast had disabled the mine’s electrical-power and ventilation systems.

Surface crews soon started drilling a 15-cm-wide hole that intercepted the mine workings 150 metres below surface several days later, and allowed for a sampling of the air quality, which was very poor.

A camera-equipped scout robot sent into the workings over the weekend found only a helmet with its light still on, before breaking down 550 metres into the tunnel when water caused a short-circuit. A second army robot was sent in later.

The joyous rescue of 33 miners from deep within a copper-gold mine in Chile in October somewhat raised expectations that these kinds of rescue successes could become the norm.

But an explosion-damaged coal mine is an entirely different – and far deadlier – beast, with a multitude of hazards: highly explosive, odorless and invisible methane gas constantly oozing out of the rock into the workings; noxious carbon monoxide similarly building up in the workings; a lack of oxygen in the air owing to it having been consumed in the explosion and any ongoing fires; highly explosive coal dust permeating the air; and brittle mine workings everywhere ready to cave in. In these situations, an explosion can be triggered from something as simple as an electrical switch being flipped or a spark coming off a hammer hitting a belt buckle.

The second, even-more-powerful explosion that hit the Pike River workings on Nov. 24 lasted 30 seconds and extinguished any hopes of the miners’ survival. The dead included 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two Britons and a South African.

This second explosion showed the wisdom in not having rescuers rush into the unsafe workings, as was the case at the Crandall Canyon coal mine explosion in Utah in 2007, when three members of a rescue team were killed and six more were injured by a rock burst while they were reopening a tunnel through hundreds of metres of rubble to reach the bodies of six miners trapped 5.5 km from a portal.

The Pike River death toll exceeds the 25 coal miners killed in a similar explosion in April at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W. Va., which was the worst U.S. mine disaster in more than two decades.

The infamous 1992 Westray coal mine explosion in Plymouth, N.S., claimed 26 lives, and ranks as Canada’s worst mine disaster of the last few decades.

With New Zealand having a population of only 4.4 million, this accident hits hard on the national psyche. Prime Minister John Key calls it a “national tragedy” and said that “to lose this many brothers at once is an agonizing blow.”

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