Hunter coal mine shutdown, hundreds of jobs in doubt

A NSW Mine Safety Investigation Unit image of the accident site where James Mitchell and Phillip Grant died at Austar in 2014.
A NSW Mine Safety Investigation Unit image of the accident site where James Mitchell and Phillip Grant died at Austar in 2014.

Yancoal has redeployed almost 200 workers to short-term jobs as it awaits the outcome of an appeal against two safety notices which have shut down its troubled Austar colliery near Cessnock.

The company moved about 180 workers on Monday to its Ashton and Abel mines in the Hunter and Moolarben colliery near Mudgee. Another 25 have been asked to take annual or personal leave.

But the workers’ long-term fate hangs on the outcome of Yancoal’s appeal against two prohibition notices which have stopped coal extraction at Austar this year.

A company spokesman told the Newcastle Herald that it had brought forward projects at the other mines to avoid redundancies. It had also “moved out” contractors from the other sites to make room for Austar workers.

But these other projects were “not indefinite” and the company would likely reassess the situation in six to eight weeks if Austar was not cleared to reopen.

Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union district president Peter Jordan said the company had put the union on notice about two weeks ago that it intended to stand down employees from this week. 

“We were able to reach an arrangement with them for the next six weeks where they would redeploy guys for short-term work … as well as agree to a rotating roster of leave,” Mr Jordan said.

“It could be longer, but we know we can get six weeks out of it.”

The longwall underground mine at Paxton has faced an uncertain future after the Resources Regulator said it was “not satisfied” workers were safe following multiple coal-burst events in 2018.

Yancoal is seeking an external merits review in the Industrial Relations Commission of the two prohibition notices issued by the Resources Regulator.

“We have worked to redeploy the majority of the Austar workforce to the Ashton, Abel and Moolarben underground mines in the interests of providing continued employment for our people,” Reinhold Schmidt, Yancoal’s Australia chief executive officer, said.

“Until all legal avenues have been exhausted and we can re-enter the mine to move the longwall, we are unable to continue proposed longwall activity.”

Austar will retain skeleton crews to maintain the operation in accordance with compliance requirements.

The company said an estimated date for a return to production was unknown.

The Herald reported in early June that some Austar employees had been redeployed to other Yancoal Hunter sites after the regulator prohibited all underground longwall mining at the Paxton mine from May 18 in response to coal bursts in an area newly approved for mining. 

The prohibition followed a “significant” coal burst on May 17, when 60 tonnes of material exploded from a longwall face at least 400 metres underground. No mine workers were injured.

The regulator had earlier prohibited cutting at the longwall after a coal burst on March 16. A mine employee was treated in hospital for a hand injury after 50 tonnes of coal exploded from a longwall on February 2.

Yancoal was advised on May 18 that the prohibition order would remain in place until a detailed geotechnical assessment was completed and the regulator was satisfied workers would be protected from more coal bursts.

Mr Jordan said the future was uncertain for the workers involved.

“In six weeks’ time we might be confronted with a different issue, but this is all about seeing if we can work our way through a difficult period,” he said.

“If they don’t lift the prohibition notice, those short-term project jobs may disappear. The situation could become grimmer for us in six weeks’ time.

“We all know the situation we’re confronting. We’re working constructively together to try and work our way through it.

“The ideal outcome is that the company sorts stuff out with the regulator and the prohibition notice can be lifted and the mine resume normal production.”

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