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Accidents or bad regulation? Why Victoria’s coal mines keep failing

The fire that burned for more than 40 days at the Hazelwood coal mine in the Latrobe Valley earlier this year is the latest in a spate of mining failures over the past few years. It might seem like plain…

Potentially catastrophic situation: the Hazelwood coal fire. AAP

The fire that burned for more than 40 days at the Hazelwood coal mine in the Latrobe Valley earlier this year is the latest in a spate of mining failures over the past few years. It might seem like plain bad luck, but a recent report shows that Victoria’s coal mines have experienced a significant number of mine failures.

The Emergency Risks in Victoria report said both open-cut and subsurface mines, particularly coal mines, are highly susceptible to infrastructure, operational, environmental, and safety failures.

The report calculates the annual likelihood of a “medium-impact” mine failure in Victoria is almost 100% - making mines more of a threat than storms, bushfires, marine pollution or heatwaves.

The deaths of 301 coal miners in Turkey last week reminds us mines have the potential to cause catastrophic tragedy. There is no room for complacency.

Serious impacts

The social, environmental and economic impacts of mining failures can be significant. At Hazelwood, the fire found its way into the mine’s coal seam, causing a potentially catastrophic situation. Elderly and vulnerable residents were evacuated from Morwell, and the remaining community was forced to breathe toxic fumes and live in houses covered with ash.

Firefighters at the Hazelwood coal mine fire had to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Keith Packnham/AAP

Open-cut mine walls are also vulnerable to extreme weather events, because they can be weakened by water and seismic activity, potentially triggering a collapse.

In 2007, the open-cut mine walls (also called batters) at Yallourn Mine failed, causing a landslide that diverted the Latrobe River into the mine pit, forced the operators to cease coal production, and left the nearby power station running at less than one-third capacity.

In 2012, an embankment that had been explicitly constructed to divert the Morwell River across the Yallourn mine failed during extreme rainfall. The resulting flood severely disrupted the mine’s operations and required months of costly remediation work.

Across the border in New South Wales, mining failures associated with coal seam gas operations have led to environmental and health safety fears over the chemical contamination of groundwater. For example, Santos spilled 250 litres of algaecide in the Pilliga in December 2011 as a result of a pipe rupture causing widespread water contamination. This followed the the leaking of 10,000 litres of saline water at the Narrabi CSG Project just prior to this.

Why does it happen?

Mining failure is, to some extent, an inevitable risk associated with an inherently dangerous industry. But these events are not mere happenstance, and it is possible for them to be more effectively managed through the use of careful, focused regulation.

The margin for error can be small when dealing with technical, operational and safety issues involving mineral extraction and energy production.

But despite this, we need to try and ensure that mine failures are less frequent and less serious, by introducing focused regulatory measures. This should include: creating technical advisory boards, standardising safety management plans, and closely monitoring safety, rehabilitation and environmental operations rather than allowing miners to regulate themselves.

Rehabilitation work is under-regulated at mining sites. Ammon Beckstram/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Victoria could learn a lot from Queensland’s Petroleum and Gas (Safety and Production) Act, which requires miners to submit publicly accessible safety plans and not to carry out activities that represent “avoidable risks” such as the utilization of old or faulty equipment.

In contrast, Victoria’s regulations are in urgent need of reform. One of the biggest problems is that there is no external monitoring of mine rehabilitation programs. Miners largely regulate themselves and are not required to make their plans public, meaning that breaches can go undetected, even if they have the potential to endanger public safety or the environment.

Counting the cost

The Hazelwood fire is now the subject of a state government inquiry, with results due in August. One question for the inquiry is whether shortcomings in the mine’s rehabilitation program were a factor not only in the outbreak of the fire, but also in its impact on nearby communities.

In 2008, the inquiry into the Yallourn landslide identified several ways to reduce the chances of similar events, such as creating technical review boards to advise miners about geological risks.

These suggestions were never followed up. If they had been, it’s possible that the 2012 flood, which occurred at the same mine, might well have been avoided.

A few steps forward

Nevertheless, Victoria does have some protective provisions. The Mineral Resources Act requires all coal miners in the Latrobe Valley to pay the relevant Minister a mine stability levy. This levy is then used to reduce geotechnical and hydrogeological risks to coal mines in the region.

The levy functions in the same way as a rehabilitation bond as it seeks to act as an incentive for operators to maintain safe, stable mines. However, financial incentives can never take the place of strong, external regulation. Indeed, it is arguable that where the cost of maintenance and rehabilitation is more than the cost of the bond, these measures might actually encourage miners to behave irresponsibly.

The consequences of a mining failure can be devastating, and all Australian governments should carefully consider whether their safety laws are performing optimally. The spate of catastrophic mining failures that have occurred in Victoria’s open-cut coal mines, combined with a weak regulatory framework for safety and rehabilitation, suggest that such a review has become a priority in that state.