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Issue # 1402      11 March 2009

Beaconsfield disaster’s unlearned lessons

The Beaconsfield mine disaster of 2006 is probably best remembered for the dramatic rescue of Todd Russell and Brant Webb. The death of 44 year-old fellow miner Larry Knight in another collapsed tunnel over 900 metres below the surface was overshadowed by the closely watched 14-day race to free the miners from their underground prison. A Tasmanian coroner’s report recently revived memories of the tragic side of those events but has also angered family, friends and fellow workers with a finding that no party could be held directly responsible for Larry Knight’s death.

“No one wants to point the finger but in a lot of other industries when there is a death, the directors are held responsible for not providing a safe workplace,” collapse survivor Brant Webb told The Examiner newspaper. “… I am disappointed with Mr Chandler’s decision that no one was at fault, especially when there was prior warning of seismic activity.”

Coroner Rod Chandler did find that mining activity had caused two major seismic events and that the ground support system employed by Beaconsfield Goldmine at its ill-fated 915 metre and 925 metre levels was inadequate. He also said that the likelihood of Larry Knight’s death would have been reduced if management had carried out systematic risk assessment.

The inquest into Larry Knight’s death was dramatic and revealing. Mining company representatives staged a walk out in its early days. The hearings threw light on the atmosphere within the mining company, which was in administration at the time of the disaster. Witnesses reported poor morale and constant pressure to lift production in order to please major creditor Macquarie Bank.

Gavan Cheesman recalled an April meeting of fellow shift bosses where priority was given to excavation in the western areas of the 915m and 925m levels of the mine. A 3,000-tonne production shortfall was their target and the “filthy” 1200g per tonne yield of the ore led to the decision to go “flat out”. The situation presented “… a wonderful opportunity to make heroes of ourselves in the next week,” he said.

The area of the mine in question was known by workers as “bad ground” and would let out eerie noises. There was a major rock fall in the area in October 2005. Miner Dale Burgess, who had been asked to enter the collapsed section of the mine to clear out valuable ore, recalls feeling “squeamish” about the task. Disaster survivor Brant Webb took a $10,000 pay cut in order to work away from the excavations.

The mine’s ground support systems were examined during the inquest. A submission from the Australian Workers Union maintained that the “comprehensive arch system” was not suitable for fractured ground. The 2.4 metre supporting bolts were not long enough. Geotechnical engineer Scott Marisett said the company had ignored advice not to mine simultaneously on more than one level of the relevant area of the mine.

He also stated that the company failed to conduct adequate tests to determine the properties of rock masses. Shift boss Gavan Cheesman gave evidence that an instruction was given to leave as small a supporting pillar of rock as possible. He described the support as “too small” and “not worth two bob”.

The conclusions of the coroner’s report are a blow to Mr Knight’s family. “The fact that Larry’s death could have been prevented was the hardest thing. I think that what the inquest showed me and what I believed beforehand was the management never listened to the miners,” brother Shane Knight told ABC Radio. The inquest also showed the sorry state of a largely deregulated industry. AWU national secretary Paul Howes has called for an end to the government’s hands-off approach and called on business to not put profits before safety.

The inquest heard that the number of safety inspectors with Tasmania’s Office of the Inspector of Mines had dropped from 10 in 1994 to just two in 2006. Senior inspector Mark Smith told the coroner he was effectively chained to his desk and unable to carry out his crucial on-site work. A month before the Anzac Day 2006 disaster at Beaconsfield he sent his bosses a memo:

“With the number of close-call events that are occurring and no follow up to ensure that proactive measures are implemented, then it is only a matter of time before another catastrophic event will occur.”

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