Race to seal underground coal mine as fire burns out of control

Race to seal underground coal mine as fire burns out of control

An underground inferno is pumping out clouds of black smoke as Anglo American works to extinguish a fire at its Grosvenor Coal Mine in Central Queensland.

Emergency services are closely monitoring the wind direction and have issued a warning to people to stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed.

The mine is on the outskirts of the township of Moranbah, which has a population of about 9,500.

Queensland Mines Rescue Team members worked through the night pumping nitrogen into the mine in an effort to starve the fire of oxygen.

The truck-mounted GAG unit, which has a modified jet engine, is being used to inject nitrogen into the mine while other workers attempt to seal the shafts.

All workers have been evacuated from the mine.(Supplied)

Anglo American has confirmed the fire broke out at its mine around 6am on Saturday when methane gas ignited on the longwall coalface.

All workers at the mine, about 190km south-west of Mackay, were safely evacuated.

It is the same mine where five workers suffered extensive burns after a methane explosion in May 2020.

Environmental experts brought in

Environmental health specialists are at the scene and data from air-quality monitoring sensors are being used to understand potential impacts on public health.

In an updated statement this afternoon, Anglo American said the smoke was expected to continue for a number of days.

“Work has started to temporarily seal the mine from the surface, which is a critical step in stopping the smoke,” the company said.

“We are actively managing and monitoring the smoke released from the mine’s ventilation shafts and appreciate it may be causing concerns for Moranbah residents.”

The company’s priority was to safely extinguish the underground fire, which emergency response teams were managing from the surface. 

“Due to the highly complex and evolving nature of this event, this will take time as we need to ensure the safety of all emergency teams undertaking this work.

“Our focus is ensuring a safe working environment for those assisting us with this response.

“Members of our senior leadership team have joined the local Moranbah response team to support the situation on the ground, to ensure we can respond as rapidly and effectively as possible to this evolving situation.”

Smoke plumes visible

Isaac Regional Council mayor Kelly Vea Vea said the smoke plumes were visible from the end of town.

“There is no smell but we are starting to think about smoke warnings and for there to be some impact from the smoke,” she said.

“Let’s be clear, this isn’t from a bushfire, it’s from a coal mine so it will have a different impact.”

Ms Vea Vea said council was considering the emotional impact on the community as well as any health or environmental impacts of the fire.

“You’re talking about hundreds of workers who have already been through some quite stressful circumstances,” she said.

The fire started when methane gas ignited in the mine.(Supplied)

“We need to be looking after people’s mental health and physical wellbeing.”

She said there was widespread relief no-one had been hurt.

“It’s an underground disaster in a highly volatile environment so I am relieved it was evacuated safely and the situation is being overseen by professionals,” she said.

A Resources Safety Health Queensland (RSHQ) said mine inspectors remained at the site to provide support as the process to seal the mine is carried out.

Exclusion zones are in place to ensure the safety of personnel while the work is undertaken.

Fire ‘could burn for days or weeks’

A mining safety expert says extinguishing underground coal fires is complex and the blaze could burn for several days or weeks.

Maureen Hassall, director of the University of Queensland’s Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre, said any efforts to reopen the mine could take years depending on the size and location of the fire.

“They’ll want to make sure that it’s fully extinguished before they declare it as such, and it can be tricky if the fire is in the actual coal seam,” she said.

“When the coal’s burning, you’ve got to extinguish that and if there are faults in the coal that allow oxygen to access the coal from other means … then that can take a longer time to extinguish.”

Professor Hassall said ensuring the safety of those working on the incident would be at the forefront of the company’s response.

“But that’s the correct way to [do it], you’ve got to look after your people.”

Minister demands explanation

An Anglo American spokesperson said the site was closed, with only essential emergency services team members in attendance.

“We are implementing the necessary process for temporary pre-planned sealing from the surface of the mine according to the site’s safety health management system,” they said.

“Only essential workers are attending the mine, with all other crew members on full pay for the next seven days while we work to understand the evolving situation.”

Mines Minister Scott Stewart said independent inspectors including the Serious Incident Investigation Unit from Resources Safety and Health Queensland (RSHQ), along with workers’ representatives, had attended the site.

Nearby residents have been told to stay indoors due to the smoke.(Supplied)

“This is a serious incident that should not have happened and a full and thorough investigation will now begin,” Mr Stewart said.

“RSHQ was working with Anglo American as it seals the mine, but it is too early to tell whether it will reopen.

“I expect Anglo American to ensure its workforce is prioritised and given what they need.”

Ms Vea Vea said the community was wondering how another mine fire had occurred four years after the disaster.

“It’s hard to understand how it could have happened with the control in place and the experience of 2020 that reverberated through the entire industry,” she said.

“Today I am thinking about these workers — their livelihoods could have changed on a dime and [it] puts their future in a precarious situation.”

Posted , updated 

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