THE NSW government’s Resources Regulator has denied engaging in “regulatory over-reach” in ordering a safety-based shutdown of Yancoal’s Austar coalmine after two explosive “coal bursts” in the deep underground mine earlier this year.
The Resource Regulator’s position is held by Novocastrian and former assistant police commissioner Lee Shearer, who said on Tuesday she was not prepared to compromise on the safety of the mineworkers in a situation where everyone agreed there were obvious signs of instability in the area where the coal bursts happened in March and May.
Yancoal has taken the Regulator to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission seeking to have lifted two prohibition notices stopping production work at the mine. The hearings are completed and the parties are waiting on a decision from the commission.
Yancoal says it has done all that it has been required to do legally and that it has submitted the required geotechnical assessment of the situation. It had not submitted a second assessment as requested by the regulator because it believed the first one was “adequate and appropriate”.
“They are challenging geological conditions and the mine does have a history with bumps and the occasional coal burst but you operate with the understanding of this potential and all steps are taken to mitigate against that,” a Yancoal spokesperson said. “Everyone who works underground is very aware of the operating environment and a recent history that we are not prepared to forget.”
Ms Shearer confirmed the government had flown out two mining experts to look at the Austar situation. The Herald understands one was the UK’s chief inspector of mines, Tony Forster, who had advised on the Pike River disaster in New Zealand, and Dr Chris Marks from the US Mine Safety Health Administration, a leading authority on pressure bursts.
Ms Shearer said that regardless of what happened at Austar, if the company wanted to retrieve the longwall machine or resume mining it had to de-stress the surrounding area, and support the workings in such a way that minimised the chance of injury or worse.
Yancoal is already hanging heavy coal conveyor belting on the walls of the seam to stop flying coal should another burst occur.
Ms Shearer said it was not the regulator’s job to tell the company how to mine, but “simply proposing measures to address the risks when an outburst occurs was insufficient”. More focus was needed on eliminating the risk. The Herald understands Dr Marks had recommended drilling into the coal to depressurise the seams.