Major coal mine’s future uncertain after fire shutdown

Laine Clark |

An underground fire has cast uncertainty over a major Australian coal mine’s future and sparked fears of an “environmental disaster”.

Workers were safely evacuated from central Queensland’s Grosvenor coal mine when methane gas ignited underground on Saturday morning.

However some were “extremely triggered” by the fire after a 2020 gas explosion at the same site near Moranbah left five workers with extensive burns.

Smoke has billowed out of the site as authorities work to seal the mine, extinguish the blaze and assess steps toward a safe re-entry – a process operators Anglo American concede may take “several months”.

Local mayor – Isaac Regional Council’s Kelly Vea Vea – said workers were now uncertain about their future at the mine which produces a major share of Anglo American’s steelmaking coal output.

“Many people are feeling the impacts of the situation at Grosvenor mine,” Ms Vea Vea told AAP.

“Workers are uncertain about their future, especially those who experienced the events of 2020 and are extremely triggered.”

Locals were already on edge after Anglo American’s recent announcement that it would break up its worldwide operations and sell its five Australian steelmaking coal mines “with urgency”.

Anglo American is the world’s third largest exporter of metallurgical coal.

“There is also the added layer of Anglo American having their mines up for sale,” Ms Vea Vea said.

“It’s too early to understand how or if that position has been affected.”

Anglo American said its steelmaking coal business expected to produce eight million tonnes in the first half of 2024, with the Grosvenor mine alone contributing 2.3 million.

“Underground mine workers are a tight-knit group, and although no one was hurt, the sense of loss is still significant with the decision to seal Grosvenor mine,” Ms Vea Vea said.

“We will continue to stay in close communication with Anglo American and the unions throughout this process to ensure that workers, families, and our communities are supported.”

Resources Minister Scott Stewart on Monday said it was too early to tell whether the mine will reopen.

“I expect Anglo American to ensure its workforce is prioritised and given what they need,” he said in a statement.

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

Workers’ representatives are now also at the site, he said.

Exclusion zones are in place after the fire caused black smoke, prompting warnings for locals to stay indoors.

“Work has started to temporarily seal the mine from the surface, which is a critical step in stopping the smoke,” Anglo American posted on social media.

“We expect smoke will continue for a number of days, and we will provide regular updates as this situation progresses.”

Anglo American said environmental health specialists were assisting as they assessed potential impacts to public health.

The Australian Conservation Foundation said the incident highlighted the risks of coal mining and methane gas.

“This fire is releasing a huge volume of climate polluting toxic smoke directly into the atmosphere,” the foundation’s Piper Rollins said.

“This is nothing short of an environmental disaster.”

The foundation urged Federal Climate and Energy Minister Chris Bowen to make it mandatory for all coal and gas facilities to measure and publicly report their emissions.