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Huntly mine's response to gas level a 'cover up' - miner

Published: 6:04AM Thursday December 01, 2011 Source: ONE News

The ventilation system at the Huntly East Coal Mine is being pushed to its limits leaving miners working in volatile levels of methane underground, a miner says.

The mine is under investigation by the Labour Department and management will meet health and safety representatives at the mine today.

The meeting comes after explosive levels of methane gas were detected at the Huntly East Coal Mine on November 11, while 40 miners were underground.

One miner said the current ventilation unit breaks down every time there is a strong easterly wind.

"Our ventilation unit is being pushed right to its limit.

"If they pump it any more it will stall the fans," the miner told the Waikato Times.

Solid Energy says it has "no concerns about safety" at the mine and the elevated levels were probably the result of a geological fault.

But the miner slammed Solid Energy's response calling it a "cover-up".

"They preach safety before production, but it doesn't really happen."

And the Department has issued the mine with an improvement notice over its ventilation system.

Improvement notices are issued when the Department believes an employer has not complied with legal obligations.

The miner told the Waikato Times that there had been rumours that methane levels reached up to 9% during last month's incident and that it may have been caused, in part, by pressure put on managers to reach "meterage" targets - the amount of metres mined each shift.

"They've been threatening us for years to close the mine if they don't get the meterage up because they've got to make money."

Former workers at a Huntly coal mine also say they are worried about the safety of those still working at the mine.

Brothers Barry and Timmy Maipi and their ancestors spent decades working in the mine and say they want more answers from owner Solid Energy.

"That could have been a hell of a disaster for those men," Barry said.

"Just a matter of a spark going off and it would have set the same scene as Pike River, so we're concerned."

And an unnamed mine worker told the Waikato Times it had potential to become a disaster similar to the Pike River Mine explosion which killed 29 men in November last year.

The miner described the mine as a "time bomb" and a "Pike River ready to go".

Spokesman for the families of Pike River victims Bernie Monk said he also has concerns about safety at the mine.

"I was aware of problems at Huntly," he told ONE News.

"A good friend of mine who has done a lot of work there stated to me the safety above ground was superb, but going down below was like going into another Pike."

Solid Energy responds

Solid Energy spokeswoman Vicki Blyth said there were "no concerns about safety at the mine", and that no one has raised any issues about it with the company.

She described the methane incident as a "not normal, but not abnormal occurrence".

Miners from the area were stood down for five days while the company "implemented standard procedures to degas the area".

This involved using an auxiliary fan which sucks out the gas at a safe, slow and steady rate.

Barry Bragg, Chief Operating Officer of Solid Energy, told TV ONE's Breakfast they followed all the correct procedures and said the miner's comment that it is Pike River waiting to happen is "absolutely incorrect".

"Allegations reported this morning are alarmist, irresponsible and simply not true," said Bragg.

"We have the event entirely under control."

He said "all underground mines have similar risks" to Pike River and "have similar controls in place".

He said Solid Energy will talk to the miners again today to make sure they can voice any concerns.

Internal investigation launched

The unnamed miner said with methane levels at 5% all that was needed was an ignition source for an explosion.

The incident was not notifiable under legislation governing mining, but Solid Energy has told the Department of Labour about it.

An internal investigation has been launched, as well as the Department of Labour investigation.

"This is part of the open and transparent process we run with our staff, the union and the department when an incident happens," Bragg said. 

Bragg described the event as rare.

"We certainly have not had any such event in that mine over the past 12 months," Bragg said.

The worker also said there was a lack of experience among staff compared to Australia, an idea resonated throughout the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River disaster which left 29 men dead.

The country's sole mines inspector told the inquiry earlier this month that he had been told by staff at the Huntly mine they did not want him to conduct impromptu visits as they did not have the staff to take him underground.