Engineer sent email warning Ballarat Gold Mine of air legging dangers months before fatal collapse

Engineer sent email warning Ballarat Gold Mine of air legging dangers months before fatal collapse

Internal emails reveal Ballarat Gold Mine was warned about the risk of a rockfall if “minimum” safety standards were not adhered to, months before a collapse that killed a 37-year-old miner.

Internal company documents seen by the ABC show that in May 2023 a veteran geotechnical engineer warned management not to proceed with a handheld drilling or “air legging” trial without what he considered to be the “minimum standard” of ground support.

In an email to management, the geotechnical engineer stated his concerns over the possibility of a rockfall-related injury, “where surface support … is [contrary to my recommendation] not installed”.

The Ballarat Gold Mine is in the suburb of Mount Clear. (ABC Ballarat: Rochelle Kirkham)

“Who will be responsible, or proven negligent, and ultimately be liable? This is my primary concern,” the geotechnical engineer said in the email.

“This is all about duty of care for my fellow workers … to ensure that we all get home to our families each night.”

The geotechnical engineer declined an on-record interview with the ABC but confirmed he was terminated in the weeks after he sent the email.

ABC News has agreed not to name the geotechnical engineers involved in this story because of potential impacts on their future work in the industry.

‘Blanket approach’ claim

WorkSafe is investigating the March rockfall that killed 37-year-old father Kurt Hourigan and left 21-year-old miner Connor Smith with life-threatening injuries.

It is understood the miners were engaged in hand drilling at the time of the collapse, and it is unclear what level of ground supports were in place at the time.

Kurt Hourigan’s mining hat.(Supplied: Facebook)

The geotechnical engineer’s May 2023 email was sent in the wake of an internal memo from management, seen by the ABC, rejecting the adoption of a “blanket approach” to ground support measures like “bolt, mesh and shotcrete”.

“Ballarat Gold Mine is not currently a financially viable business and the high level of ground support is a significant contributor to the cost of production,” the memo stated.

The memo described the “globally accepted standard, that ‘we don’t work under unsupported ground'” as “dated”.

It called for the application of supports “where appropriate”, based on “ground conditions, not a blanket approach”, and recommended ensuring air leg miners themselves “have the responsibility and the authority to effectively manage the ground within their work area”.

A second geotechnical engineer, who finished up at the mine late last year, said relying on miners to make decisions about the conditions of the ground they were working with was, in his view, unsafe.

“You expect a miner to just look at what they have in front of them,” he said.

He said the structures that formed rocks were “intricate and complex” and were “something that has to be looked after by experts”.

“Leaving [those] responsibilities in the hands of someone at the face of the tunnels compromises the entire process,” he said.

Union says workers not responsible

Australian Workers Union Victorian branch secretary Ronnie Hayden said the idea that air leg miners should be responsible for managing the ground in their work area was “absolute crap”.

Ronnie Hayden says workers are devastated by the death.(ABC News)

“It’s up to the mine manager to make sure that the conditions are safe, not the individual performing the task,” he said.

“This would be like the police saying it’s up to the individual driver whether or not they should wear a seatbelt.”

He said the management memo describing “globally accepted” safety standards as “dated” was concerning.

“When they put in proper ground support, they’re making sure that it’s safe for the workers to perform the task,” Mr Hayden said.

WorkSafe issued Ballarat Gold Mine an improvement notice in 2021 with the threat of a fine up to $450,000.

Earlier the same year, 600 tonnes of rock material collapsed in a tunnel during a change of shift.

New owners took over the Ballarat Gold Mine in March 2024 after a lengthy administration process.(ABC Ballarat: Rochelle Kirkham)

Mr Hayden said he was concerned that the ground the miners were working on in March may not have been appropriately supported at the time of the collapse.

“If the ground was supported, it wouldn’t have given away like that,” Mr Hayden said.

The ABC understands questions around what extent the ground was supported will be central to the WorkSafe investigation into the collapse.

There is disagreement among geotechnical experts as to what circumstances operating under unsupported ground pose a risk to miners while air leg mining.

The former mine operators engaged a new consultant in June 2023, who concluded that air leg mining could be conducted safely under certain conditions “without surface support” based on the performance of two trial air leg sites in Ballarat.

The trial sites did not include the site where the March collapse happened.

The consultant did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment.

Near miss in lead up to disaster

The ABC understands there was a rockfall in the same section of the mine in July last year where the March fatality happened.

It understands a surveyor was narrowly missed by a falling boulder in what is known as the Llanberis 525 tunnel.

The geotechnical engineer who spoke to the ABC said he was not aware of a significant investigation into that incident.

Kurt Hourigan with his child before the fatal mine collapse. (Supplied: Facebook)

WorkSafe said it could not comment on any aspects of an investigation.

The geotechnical engineer said, in his opinion, the miner’s death in March could have been avoided.

“These things shouldn’t [occur] in a proper, well-regulated mine,” he said.

“When you have that sort of incident happening, you need to stop and re-evaluate what you’re doing, whether you should be continuing doing things the same way that they have been done, or you just re-strategise and whether you beef up your ground support,” he said.

The geotechnical engineer said he felt a level of responsibility for the death, even though it occurred months after his departure.

“A father is not coming home again,” he said.

Questions over air leggers’ supervision

A third former engineer, who left the company last year, told the ABC he was also concerned by the mine’s approach.

“There was a gent set up as ‘foreman’ for air legging but he was also actively mining,” the engineer said.

Gold has been mined in Ballarat since the 1850s.(ABC Ballarat: Sarah Jane Bell )

The engineer said that in his view “with four to five active air legging miners there should have been a full-time foreman ensuring work was meeting all needs, geotech, vent, safety … and he should not have been part of the air leg contract crew”.

Concerns around a perceived lack of supervision in the mine have been raised by previous employees, in emails dating back to 2021 seen by the ABC.

The ABC understands the current management has let go of five key personnel since taking over in March last year, including the mine manager, a senior mining engineer, two geotechnical engineers and the head of safety.

Ballarat Gold Mine machinery was at a stand still the day after the mine collapse. (ABC Ballarat: Rochelle Kirkham)

Two other engineers also resigned in June last year.

The engineer the ABC spoke to said a key question for investigators would be to confirm whether regular supervision was taking place, and if the area was bolted, or supported, whether it was done sufficiently.

“Who was doing it, what constitutes regular, how was it documented, was it done and did it show that the bolting was up to standard,” he said.

The Ballarat Gold Mine has recommenced operating in the wake of the fatality.

WorkSafe is investigating Kurt Hourigan’s death.(Supplied: Facebook)

The mine went into administration in March last year after a string of safety incidents.

New owners, Victory Minerals, backed by a Singapore-based hedge fund, took over on March 7.

The consultant manager of the administration process is now the sole director of the Australian-based Victory Minerals.

The company said in a statement there were two separate independent investigations underway, and it did “not want to pre-empt the findings of those investigations with premature commentary”.

“In the short time since they assumed control, the new owners have been made aware of some legacy issues, including complaints made by some former employees about what occurred under previous ownership/management in 2022 and early 2023,” the statement said.

“The new owners and management recognise that these are trying times for the workforce, many of whom are still grieving the loss of a colleague. They are committed to providing a safe and healthy workplace for all employees and contractors.

“Worksafe Victoria approved the reopening of the mine from 15 March 2024 and the owners and management are satisfied there is no ongoing risk to anyone working at the site.”

The geotechnical engineer said he was very sad at the outcome.

“You cannot put a monetary value on a human life,” he said.

Mourners were encouraged to come in Carlton Football Club colours when the family of Kurt Hourigan held a ceremony in Trentham on Thursday.

The ABC also contacted the subcontracting company who provided the air leg drillers, which did not respond.

WorkSafe declined to comment on an active investigation.

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