Saturday, September 17, 2011

Once Again, the Price of Coal

POLICE and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are to investigate the disaster at the Gliesion colliery in the Swansea Valley. Four men were killed - Charles Breslin, 62, David Powell, 50, Philip Hill, 45, and Garry Jenkins, 30. They were trapped deep undergound as water flooded the shaft where they were working, on Thursday morning.

Three others, including David Powell's son Daniel, managed to get out and raise the alarm. But the mission to rescue the trapped miners ended up as recovery of their bodies. Specialist mine inspectors were at the pit yesterday to work with police.

Mining is a dangerous industry throughout the world, and Thatcher's reduction of Britain's coal industry to a bare remnant of its past has not ended the dangers, even if it has reduced the scale of disasters. Wales has a poud mining tradition, but has also had more than its share of tragedy, which these four men now join.

Melvyn Bragg, in his BBC series on film recently had an episode called Black Diamonds, recalling the 1934 Gresford Disaster, when 266 men died in an underground explosion and fire. Because the workers had only completed three quarters of their shift when it happened the company docked their last wages by the appropriate amount.

It has not only been the miners themselves who perished, nor was state ownership enough to ensure safety came first. In 1966 a coal waste tip and tons of slurry slipped down the mountain side at Aberfan, destroying homes, engulfing the village school and killing 144 people, including 116 children and five of their teachers. "Buried alive by the NCB!" cried a man at the inquest, referring to the National Coal Board. The official inquiry verdict spoke of "men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above".

What is left of the mining industry since the Thatcher years, a scattered mixture of size and ownership, has been having a little boom as world demand for coal for power raises prices despite the low-carbon talk. The privately-owned Gleision colliery had been in and out of mothballs and different hands, over the years, but was recently producing about 250 tonnes a week of anthracite, a "smokeless" hard and relatively clean coal burned in local boilers.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is worried that these privately-controlled facilities, which barely employ more than a dozen workers at any one time, operate largely "under the radar" of mine inspectors – if only because they are usually situated on remote hillsides.

Chris Kitchen, general secretary of the NUM, said: "We have grave concerns about safety standards in these kinds of mines. We fear that safety is often set at minimum standards so that costs can be kept down. They are not generally unionised or easily visited by inspectors."

Large mines, such as the five remaining deep underground mines which employ hundreds of workers, tend to operate under safety standards established when the industry was nationalised, up to 1995. But the big collieries such as Kellingley in Yorkshire will typically have teams of dedicated fire and safety officers, surveyors and ventilation staff whose job it is to alert the owner and workforce to any problems, says Kitchen. "You are not going to have that kind of thing in a small drift mine that employs nine people."

The rush of water into the shaft at Gleision is thought to have come when the roof over the miners' heads gave way. releasing a deluge from an old flooded mine-working above. The roof could have been literally undermined by blasting and removing coal, or held up by undersized props, or it may have deteriorated over time. A spokeswoman for the HSE said the inspectorate's records showed no enforcement notices on the colliery, which was due an inspection later this year.

But an inquiry will focus on what information the management of the colliery had about existing and disused mine workings in the vicinity. The Lofthouse disaster in West Yorkshire in 1973 when seven miners were trapped led to a code of practice to try to ensure no further cases of a dangerous inrush of water.

The law requires managers to employ a surveyor whose job it is to provide maps of nearby workings so miners can work a safe distance from them. The HSE has specific regulations making it the duty of the mine owner and manager to obtain all available information about nearby workings from the Coal Authority, where mine abandonment plans are filed, and to ensure that water inrushes do not happen.

The regulations state that mining should not be carried out within 45 metres in any direction, of a layer of rock containing water, or any disused workings that are not linked to mines. Nor are miners supposed to work in tunnels within 37 metres of any disused mine workings. The major mines in the country would have detailed archives and mine plans that would ensure that modern shafts and workings steer clear of previously-worked areas. Records of old mines are not always reliable or adequate. Private mining companies early in the last century did not always file them.

Nevertheless, mining companies today are supposed to take care, and if they are entering areas of old workings. to inform the HSE. The NUM will want to know whether Gleision;s owners did everything they could to observe the regulations and code of practice. The investigation into the tragedy at Gleision could take months to complete as the mine safety inspectors piece together what happened.

We have yet to see any suggestion that the government might take this tragedy seriously enough to reconsider plans to cut down on the HSE. But just for now perhaps the press will suspend its treatment of Health and Safety as a joke, and we might stop hearing old chestnuts about children playing conkers being required to wear goggles.

Though I would not count on it.

Mid-Term Merriment about Mesothelioma

A support group for asbestosis sufferers has condemned the behaviour of two Tory MPs during a committee debate on legal aid. The group, which attended a hearing of the public bill committee this week to hear a debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Bill, said that Conservative MPs Ben Wallace and Ben Gummer had behaved like "rowdy public schoolboys" and displayed "contempt" for working people.

The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum said it was shocked at the behaviour of the two MPs when Kate Green MP was speaking about the effect of the Bill on asbestos victims dying from mesothelioma, citing the suffering of her own constituents.

Under the proposed legislation those who have suffered work-related illness or injury and seek compensation would be responsible for success fees which are to be capped at 25 per cent of damages. Campaigners argue that, without the alternative of legal aid, claimants are returned to a worse position than prior to 2000 when legal aid for such cases was scrapped.

The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum said its research suggests that many mesothelioma sufferers, defeated by illness, will never make a claim because of the additional stress and the financial risk they will face.

Jim Sheridan MP, chairman of the public bill committee, was apparently forced to rebuke Mr Wallace and Mr Gummer for disrupting the proceedings.

From 'Tory 'schoolboys' disrupt asbestosis committee hearing'- Paddy McGuffin, Morning Star, September 16

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