21 Feb 2012

Mine closure shows higher safety threshold - union

3:25 pm on 21 February 2012

A union representing mineworkers says the closure of a Solid Energy coal mine shows safety standards in New Zealand mines are finally being taken to levels comparable with those in Australia.

The Spring Creek underground mine near Greymouth was shut down by the Department of Labour on Monday because of three incidents that raised safety concerns.

A diesel generator caught alight sending carbon monoxide into the mine; a system to alert workers to the stopping of a main fan failed; and an auxiliary fan cut out.

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union assistant national secretary Ged O'Connell told Nine to Noon the mine's closure shows the Department of Labour's new High Hazards Unit is working effectively.

"What we've got all of a sudden is a far higher threshold in terms of interpreting the current law in New Zealand," he said.

The High Hazards Unit was established after a review last year of the way the department dealt with Pike River Mine.

Acting chief inspector of mines Gavin Taylor was seconded to the job from Queensland.

Mr O'Connell says Mr Taylor is dealing with the situation as he would in Australia and the industry in New Zealand needs to sit up and learn from this.

Solid Energy says it may not re-open the mine as soon as the Labour Department gives the go-ahead, because it may take longer to meet the company's own expectations.

The department says it could lift the notice on the mine as early as Wednesday.

However, chief operating officer Barry Bragg says that is only the beginning and the company has its own expectations and standards that need to be met.

Last year, the mine was taken out of production for nearly six months so changes could be made in light of the Pike River disaster.

Workers not at risk, says mine boss

Barry Bragg says staff safety was not compromised in the incidents that led to the mine's closure.

Mr Bragg told Morning Report that while the first control failed, other controls worked to ensure staff were safe.

But he says the warning systems should have been more effective and an investigation is underway into why the first control failed.

Mr Bragg says a surface compressor that overheated led to smoke getting into the mine, but there was no fire underground.

He says he will work with the Department of Labour to improve the processes and get the mine working again.

Spring Creek, the largest mine on the West Coast, employs about 230 people including mineworkers, tradespeople and professional specialists. About 40 people work underground at any one time.

Solid Energy says the mine is in a development phase, with limited coal output, so stopping underground work is not expected to affect the mine's customers.

Last week the Labour Department identified another mine it had closed for failing to meet safety standards as Broken Hills, a small underground gold mine in Coromandel.

Owner Stuart Rabone said the mine was closed because he would not install a secondary exit but he had already decided to stop mining operations.