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Q+A: Interview with Peter Whittall

Published: 2:41PM Sunday November 28, 2010 Source: Q+A

Guyon Espiner interviews Peter Whittall

Could I start by adding my own small voice of condolence for this tragedy, and to recognise that you have fronted up to the public and to the media constantly, and I appreciate you doing that for us again today.

PETER WHITTALL - Pike River Coal
 You're more than welcome.

GUYON I just want to get a picture of how much of an issue methane was at this mine.  And I go back to the company's annual review for 2010, when it estimated that for the next year it could see 105,000 to 185,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.  That sounds like a lot of methane, enough for the company to even consider using it for power generation on site.  I mean, was this a very gassy mine?

PETER It was a moderately gassy mine.  It had quite a range of gas, from virtually nothing on the escarpment, obviously, to the west - it's bled off over many thousands of years - to still low levels about more than half the lease, but it was quite gassy, I would say moderately gassy, on the eastern side of the lease, which is the first part that we're mining.  The actual total quantity of gas per cubic metre, or per ton of coal, wasn't very very high.  I've worked in mines with up to twice as much methane as what Pike had.  Because we had a thick seam and because we had quite permeable coal - in other words, the gas was given off freely - then the daily hazard or the daily management requirement for gas was foremost in our operational requirements.

GUYON And what did that mean in terms of monitoring?  Was there continuous monitoring for methane in this mine?

PETER Yeah, there was.  We have a range of different monitoring types.  We go from hand-held where the mining officials, including myself, carry a hand-held methane monitor wherever you go, and you can test in places likely to find methane, like up in high parts of the roof or cavities.  And when I or the mine managers do an inspection, or the underviewers on shift do their inspections, one of the things they always test for is methane.  And also the guys in charge of each of the development units, the deputies and the senior mining guys, also have hand-held methane detectors.  The machinery themselves that's cutting coal, they have methane monitors on board that cut power automatically if the methane levels go above what's actually a very low percentage and nowhere near the explosive range.  And then we also have parts of the mine that are monitored continuously and electronically, and that data is fed back to our control room on the surface 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

GUYON One of the former miners who now lives in Australia is reported in the weekend newspapers as saying that there were problems with gas and with ventilation, and he claims that some of the concerns were ignored.  Is that true?

PETER Oh, that's absolutely not true.  Ignored, never.  Worked on, constantly.  Would we have had issues in the early stages of the mine?  Absolutely.  One of the things you do as you go into a coal seam, you've got a lot of boreholes and you've got a lot of data, but you also have to learn your operational parameters.  So as the mine was very early starting on, we would be learning how quickly the gas was given off, how quickly it could accumulate.  That's why the mining officials would be taking learnings from those.  We started drilling holes for exploration, and initially we didn't believe we would need to start directing that gas anywhere in particular other than just up the ventilation shaft.  But with time, we started to get more holes and started to gather that gas into pipelines and reticulate it through the mine and exhaust it up boreholes.  So it wasn't a learning process in gas.  The people running the mine including myself, other mine managers and underviewers that were very experienced in gas, it's more about learning the aspects of the mine that you're working with.  You're working with Mother Nature, and every mine is different, and even different parts of the mine are different.  I would absolutely say that from a process, from a management, from an intent and from a systems point of view, we never ignored any safety concerns.  I can't vouch for individuals, albeit that anyone else as an individual who did the wrong thing or was ignoring a safety procedure would be taken to task over that, and that behaviour would be rectified.

GUYON So given what you have said, it would seem unlikely that there could have been a slow build-up of methane because of your monitoring systems, so are we - I know it's difficult to speculate - but are we talking about a situation where there's been a sudden rush of methane into the mine?

PETER Um, you're right, it is hard to speculate.  But I would agree with your first comment, to allow a slow build-up of methane in our working areas I would find very unlikely, given that at the time of the incident we were on a continuous shift, they'd been working all day.  And the night before mining officials had been taking methane readings, and in the working faces we've got the records from the early indications - and I haven't gone back through those thoroughly, that hasn't been our focus - but my indications from reading those reports is that they were being done properly.  The only reports we haven't got are from one of the guys, Peter O'Neill, who is still in the mine.  And his shift went longer, through the end of the shift.  He worked a 12-hour shift, so his reports for that build-up that day before are still with him.  But I would expect that there hasn't been a slow build-up in many of the working faces.  However, there is an area of the mine, in our hydro panel where we were working, whereby the very nature of it, just the same as a longwall mine, which are more common in Australia, you have by definition a large goaf or gob area, or goaf area, we call it, it's a large void where the roof falls in, and that by its nature will fill with gas, and that's part of the mining process.

GUYON How recently, if at all, had you been shotfiring or blasting in the mine?

PETER We shotfire and blast every day, we have done for a couple of years.  We have procedures for that.  And on this particular day I understand we did a very small shot on a piece of roadway where sometimes if you can't get a machine in to mine it, and it's only small, you want a small little stub roadway, then shotfiring's the most quick and efficient way.  We had fired a shot at 11 o'clock, 11am, I believe.  I haven't looked at the records, but I've asked management on site, and was assured that the explosives and detonators had all been booked out.  Those that were used were accounted for, and those that weren't used were returned and accounted for, and they were happy with the procedures that were followed.  So I have said before that, to my knowledge and the knowledge of the management that have advised me, there's no direct link between our shotfiring activities, and there was no shotfiring to our knowledge going on at the time of the incident.

GUYON The company has said in previous documentation when it's been reporting that the miners were gonna get transponders so that they could be located.  These transponders would sit in the lamps of the helmets.  Did that happen, and were they working?  Because it seemed that we didn't know where the miners were.

PETER That was implemented to a certain extent.  It was in transition, we had some in a budget.  It's quite new, I've never had those before, so it was quite new to me.  I believe I had one in my cap lamp, though it was only in a transition phase.  It's not like a GPS, though, so you don't walk around the mine, or on a surface, and know where everyone is within the metre.  It actually goes past certain detection points.  So you would have one at the entrance to the mine and it would record that you've gone underground, and you may have them at the entrance to panels and that would record that you've gone into that place in the mine.  Our mine was a very small area.  To my knowledge, we haven't put those location points or monitoring points underground at all, if maybe one place.  I'm just not sure of that at the moment.  But the difficulty with knowing where people are is because it's not a GPS system they were known to go into certain areas; where in those certain areas they are, and even if all the cap lamps had had those transponders, to my knowledge, we would still only know that they were generally in an area of the mine.

GUYON Just in the last couple of minutes we have, I wanna speak more generally about mining safety in New Zealand.  I know that you made a submission to the Department of Labour review where you made some very strong comments about the lack of mine inspectors in New Zealand.  Would they have made any difference if you had had more mine inspectors who could have checked these mines out more frequently?

PETER No, as I said, we really aren't into the investigation phase from our point of view yet.  So depending on the outcome of this, uh, our own internal investigation, which will start as well - as we would normally on any safety incident - or on anything else that anyone else finds, uh, I can't comment on what the root cause is yet.  I don't know, and therefore I can't comment on specifically would more inspectors have made a difference here.  But I can comment, generically, that we have a very good relationship with our district inspector; he visits the mine reasonably regularly.  And I don't believe, off the knowledge I have now, that more frequent inspections from him would have made any difference at all.  He reviewed our systems, he was there to my knowledge a week or so earlier, but that's to my memory, meeting with our general manager, who's also the statutory mine manager at the moment, and that inspector is reasonably intimately knowledgeable of the Pike operations.  No, I do know the submission you're talking about, but in that particular point I don't believe that would have been the case.

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