Monday, November 22, 2010

Mining Accidents - in New Zealand and some good news in China

Mining is regularly in news – not in any good way ; unfortunately accidents have kept them in limelight. 

The first good news is that all 29 chinese miners trapped in flash flood at Batian coal mine  in the southwestern province of Sichuan were rescued sparking scenes of jubiliation.  It is vivid in everyone’s memory of the successful retrieval of miners at San Jose copper gold mine in Copiapo, Chile.  All 33 trapped were rescued and brought to surface on 13th Oct 2010 after spending close to 70 days below the earth.  The total cost of the rescue operations is reportedly around US$ 20 M.  The efforts of Chilean Govt deserves great appreciation, as many such reports had ended in vain.
Last month many miners died at  Henan in an explosion in the pit of a mine owned by Pingyu Coal and Electric based in Yuzhou city. Though some of the trapped miners could be located, tonnes of coal dust had to be cleared before the mine shaft could reach anywhere near them. The blast occurred as workers were drilling a hole to release pressure from a gas buildup to decrease the risk of explosions, according to safety officials. The blast is reported to have unleashed more than 2,500 tonnes of coal dust. Though the type of gas was not specified, methane is a common cuase of mind blasts and coal dust is explosive.  Earlier   a coal pit in Shanxi province was flooded – 115 were rescued but 36 could not be. It was reported that the miners survived by eating sawdust, tree bark, paper and even coal. Some strapped themselves to the walls of the shafts with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept.  That way, china has a bad track record and it was reported that 2631 chinese miners were last year alone and worser still, independent labour groups feel that the figure is much higher.
Now it is the turn of Maori land for claim to shame.    Mining has been on in New Zealand perhaps from the 19th century.  NZ had abundant resources of coal, silver, ironore, limestone and gold.   There is a legislation regulating mining known as ‘the Crown Minerals Act’ of 1991.  

On Friday 19th of Nov 2010, it was reported that a gas explosion ripped through one of New Zealand's largest coal mines with  dozens of workers trapped underground.  There were reports of five of them stumbling to the surface. The rest are feared missing still.  Newspaper reports state that  shortly before the blast the electricity went out in the mine, which may have caused ventilation problems. That may have contributed to a buildup of gas underground. Rescue teams were waiting for word that the mine was safe to enter.  There were footages of blackened trees and light smoke billowing from the top of mountain where ventilation shaft emerges.  Left over pockets of explosive methane gas was feared which was impeding rescue operations.   The mine is located in rugged mountains near Atarau on New Zealand's South Island.
Whilst comparisons may not be fair, the prospects of them coming back alive looks dramatic.   Authorities stated that each miner carried 30 minutes of oxygen supply – enough to reach oxygen stores in the mine that he said would allow them to survive for "several days." New Zealand Prime Minister John Key  was reported to have said that  the situation at the mine had the potential to be very serious.

Pike River Coal is a New Zealand-registered company, but its majority owners are Australian. There  reportedly are also Indian shareholders.  The site is reportedly closer to the site of Strongman Mine where one of the worst mining disasters of NZ occurred in 1967.  

Unlike Chile where the trapped miners virtually were living in a village, the men here were spread out over four different parts of coal face when the blast occurred.  They were equipped for a nine hour shift underground and have by now spent more hours now.   The miners were wearing protective clothing, including steel cap boots, hard hats and safety goggles, and were also each carrying a lamp, batteries, ear plugs and a self rescuer - a device that can deliver 25 to 30 minutes of oxygen in the case of an emergency.    Water is available in plenty including a fixed line of running  water.  However food would be in acute short supply.  There is ample water within the mine, including a fixed line of running water that is usually reserved for fighting fires and stocks of clean drinking water at various points along the coal face.  However, the men would only have the food that they carried into the mine with them in their lunchboxes on Friday. 

The website of the Mine states that a drill hole is being  planned to intercept a roadway within Pike River coal mine  which will provide rescue planners with more information about gas levels in the mine's air.  It is also stated that drilling were to begin shortly.  If the ground the drill bit passes through is not stable, the hole will need to be encased to prevent its collapse, which would slow progress.

Pike River Chief Executive, Peter Whittall  accompanied relatives of the missing men to the mine.   The news item also mentions that robot and remote, real-time gas sampling equipment are being readied to assist rescue efforts.  It would be used first to check the area where an underground loader is thought to be blocking the access way. A longer control cable is being sought for the machine which might allow it to proceed further along the 2.2km tunnel towards the area of coal workings.

Depending on where the drill hole intersects the drive, laser and other imaging gear which can be lowered down the hole may provide more information about the situation deeper in the mine. Fibre-optic cable was also being laid from the mine portal area to the top of the main ventilation shaft which will  allow the rescue planners to see any changes in the air coming out of the shaft.

The relatives continue to wait with bated breath praying for safe return of the trapped miners, much as they did at Chile.

Regards – S Sampathkumar.

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PS : posted on the morning of 23rd Nov. 2010.

Here is another update, after my post on the mining accident at New Zealand, which makes one gloom.

The hopes are fast vanishing as the families of the men trapped were today told to prepare for the worst, as police acknowledged for the first time they were preparing for a "loss of life".  The borehole into the mine is nearing completion, early rescue had been hampered by explosive gases.  

The relatives were waiting against hope but the efforts received a major set back when a  robot belonging to the New Zealand army broke down after it was sent in to check conditions and film the underground area.  The area is deemed too dangerous for rescuers to enter because of the gases. Drilling of 15cm-wide shaft into the mine tunnel is almost complete this will provide quality air inside.  Rescue teams were also using seismic devices, which would detect if any survivors were trying to signal to rescuers by tapping on the rock. Unfortunately nothing could be sighted.  The phone line deep inside has remained unanswered for days.  The rations would have dried up and the miners’ cap lamps would have run out of batteries.

It is apparent that the delay is bringing down the hopes making the moods sullen and downcast.  Amidst the anger and frustration, the non-preparedness to cope up with  a disaster of this nature is apparently showing up.

Regards – S. Sampathkumar.

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