THE Austar longwall operation at Paxton is the only coal mine still operating on the Cessnock coalfields.
It’s had a chequered history in recent years, going through a number of changes of ownership as various operators tried to make a go of a mine that produced some of the finest quality coking coal in Australia while being characterised by difficult working conditions.
The present owners, the Chinese-backed Yancoal, took over in 2003, buying it after an underground fire closed the mine on a care-and-maintenance basis.
Tragedy struck in 2014 when two mineworkers, James Mitchell, 49, and Phillip Grant, 35, were killed when the sidewall of a development roadway blew out.
Work subsequently resumed but trouble struck again this year when two further coal bursts, one on March 16, the other on May 17, led the state government’s Resource Regulator to again shut the mine.
The mine remains shut, and Yancoal has moved to find work elsewhere for the 205 employees, saying it has no more work at the mine while it waits for the regulator to make a final decision on what will happen.
Apparently frustrated with the time it is taking the regulator to act, Yancoal has taken the authority to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission, where it is seeking a merits review of the regulator’s action.
Yancoal says it has supplied the geotechnical assessment required in such situations – which are not particularly uncommon – but that the regulator wants another report.
While caution is absolutely necessary in this case, the fact that Yancoal has resorted to court action in its dealings with the regulator indicates it believes its workforce is safely able to go underground, if only to remove the longwall mining machine that sits stranded below the surface while the prohibition order remains.
Underground mining is an inherently risky business, as the union wall of remembrance at Aberdare attests.
But there is also a case to argue that the workers – and the mine engineers who know the strata intimately – are the ultimate judges of safety. History shows that the longer a mine is left unattended, without proper care and maintenance, the quicker it begins to deteriorate. If the mine does not reopen, the Austar workers are likely facing retrenchment, with only six to eight weeks of work left for those who have been redeployed.