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Q+A: Interview with Davitt McAteer

Published: 3:03PM Sunday November 28, 2010 Source: Q+A

PAUL HOLMES INTERVIEWS DAVITT McATEER

PAUL If anyone understands what Greymouth is going through at the moment, it's the people of Montcoal, West Virginia.  On April 5 this year, shortly after 3pm, an explosion tore through a coal mine called the Upper Big Branch.  Methane had exploded, 29 miners were dead, two down there did survive.  But the similarities with Pike River are striking.  Davitt McAteer was, in the 1980s under the Clinton Administration, the Assistant Secretary of Labour responsible for mine safety across the United States.  He's a world expert.  And after the explosion at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia he was appointed to lead the official investigation into just what happened and why.  Mr McAteer for 40 years has been campaigning for mine safety.  He says he's still several months away from concluding his work, but if he knows anything it's that these sorts of accidents should not still be happening in developed countries.  Davitt McAteer, we thank you very much for joining us from Hagerstown and driving all the way into Maryland.  Good morning.
DAVITT McATEER - Mine Investigator
 Thank you for inviting me.  Good morning.
PAUL First question to you is this one, really.  Do we still have to expect fatal coal mine accidents in this day and age with all the engineering and the technology we've got in developed countries?
DAVITT I think the answer is no.  We should not have accidents of this magnitude, of this size in developed countries, or for that matter around the world, because we know how to mine safely, we know how to mine without explosions; we do it day in and day out.  We know where the risks are and we know what precautions need to be taken, and we need to be applying those on a daily basis, and we need to make certain that we build into precautions redundant systems that can keep explosions from expanding and killing large numbers of people.
PAUL And Davitt, if we have got a rather busy presence of methane, as you had at Upper Big Branch and as we've had at Pike River here obviously for some time, does that really have to become the first priority?
DAVITT No.  We understand that in a coal mining setting we're going to have methane in most instances.  And therefore we ought to take the precautions to remove that methane and either drill ahead of the mine and withdraw it out from underground or, during the mining process, ventilate it.
PAUL Pike River seems to have had no ultimately continuous system of monitoring the methane.  What would your view be of that?
DAVITT The facts are not clear just yet, but if there was no system for continuing the methane, then that is an error, and that needs to be changed, and that needs to be changed in any mine.  You have to be able to remove the methane from an underground coal mine.
PAUL To be fair to Pike River, they had systems to monitor and remove the methane.  The debate is whether they had a continuous system.
DAVITT I understand that.  The difficulty we have right at the moment is it's premature to make conclusions about what happened and what existed, and we have to wait and let the facts drive the investigations.
PAUL Can I ask you this too, and it might see a very amateur sort of a question, but if, as Pike River was doing, mining into a hillside uphill, mining uphill, does that make the removal of methane more difficult at the coal face because the methane's gonna hang round, surely, at the coal face rather than drain away, or in open-cast mining disappear into the air?
DAVITT Well, methane is a migratory gas and it will reach the top, it will build up into a mine that has a slant that would allow the air to go up.  But you can build precautions into it.  And you have to understand that when you're making a decision to mine in that fashion, that you have to mine with the ventilation that will ensure that you remove the methane and ensure that you don't have an explosion of this kind.
PAUL Davitt, we sent you the CCTV footage of the first blast last Friday, New Zealand time.  Did you have a look at that?  From the entrance of the mine.
DAVITT I did have a look at that.
PAUL What were your impressions, looking at that?  How big would you describe the magnitude of that?
DAVITT It was a significant explosion, an explosion with a large amount of force behind it.  You have to look at that and say that was a profound explosion in this mine.
PAUL Would it be fair to say that it's probable that the miners, the 29 men, could not have survived that, inside the mine?
DAVITT I think it's fair to say that it was unlikely that they would have survived that, but not 100% for certainty.  Odder things, stranger things have happened, but it is unlikely that they would have survived.
PAUL Another problem we had, of course, was communication, knowing where the fellows were, not being able to speak to the miners.  I know that your experience is very similar to that after the disaster April 5 this year at Upper Big Branch.  You had great difficulties, it took your people hours to get information about what had gone on down below.  What can we do about this?
DAVITT Well, we need to apply new technologies to the mining, and we've done some of that after the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 where we've improved the communications systems.  Now, those improvements were not in place at the Upper Big Branch, but there are improvements in the works, and those improvements need to be applied both in the United States and around the world.  Secondly, we need to understand that there can be new technologies that can be applied.  We need, for example, to have a black box on the continuous miner much like you have on an airplane; we need to have a black box on the long-haul operations so that you can feed information out of the mine through a series of cables or hardened cables that will allow us to have better information.  Because as you've pointed out, once the explosion occurs, we're really reliant upon blind luck to know what's going on there, and that can't be.  We can't continue that kind of process.
PAUL No.  Cos you mention aviation too, and one of the things all aircraft have flying around the United States, they're asked to transpond a certain radio frequency.  And it looks like Pike River were entertaining this kind of transponder idea in the helmet or in the light of the miners' helmets.  Isn't there a requirement in the States to have transponders now?
DAVITT There is.  After the Sago disaster of 2006 the Miner Act was passed, and there's requirement for transponders, and they were being put into place at the Upper Big Branch.  They had not been put entirely into place.  Some of those survived, some did not survive the explosion at Upper Big Branch, but they did at least provide information where the last time certain individuals were.
PAUL And can I ask you, finally, what is it like in a coal mine after an explosion such as Upper Big Branch or Pike River?  What's it like down there?
DAVITT It's a very sad place.  It's very difficult.  You know that miners have lost their lives, that men have lost their lives, and the only thing you can do is resolve to try to prevent it from occurring in another location.
PAUL Finally, from your long experience, Davitt, of campaigning for safety of men in mines, do the mining companies constantly have to be pushed to be super-mindful of safety?
DAVITT The difficulty is that in mines the workplace changes every 24 hours, and so you might have a responsible representative of a company one day, and the next day a fellow who's not so responsible and that presents a problem.  So you do have to be very diligent about making certain that the precautions and the prevention methods are put into place right away, every single day.
PAUL I suppose what I was referring to was after the Miners Act and those transponders became compulsory in American coal mines, four years on, only 8% of those mines in the United States were using the transponders.
DAVITT Absolutely, absolutely.  And you have to put requirements in the statute.  Our experience in this country is if you don't put the requirements in the statute and don't inspect to make certain it happens, they don't happen.  And that's unfortunate.  And it shouldn't need to be, but that's the case.  And yes, we have to have inspections and we have to continue to inspect and continue to require that if you don't do that, you're penalised.