Fire casts pall over future of coal mine and workers

Laine Clark and Savannah Meacham |

Workers facing an uncertain future at a major coal mine have been “shocked and traumatised” by an underground fire that has been burning for days.

Authorities are still trying to extinguish the blaze at central Queensland’s Grosvenor site which erupted when methane gas ignited on the weekend, creating a “volatile situation”.

No one was injured by the fire at Queensland’s largest underground coal mine operated by Anglo American.

However, counselling has been offered to the Moranbah mine’s 1400 workers as they sweat on the future.

The fire is set to burn for days and the mine is expected to be closed for months.

The blaze comes after a 2020 gas explosion at the same mine left five workers with extensive burns.

“Given that this is the second such incident of a similar nature, you have to question the long-term viability of this mine and whether it’s actually safe to continue mining at that location,” local Queensland MP Dale Last told AAP.

Dale Last
Burdekin MP Dale Last says the work to extinguish the fire is dangerous. (Glenn Hunt/AAP PHOTOS)

An exclusion zone is in place as authorities battle to control the underground fire.

A mobile unit powered by a jet engine is pumping nitrogen into the site while six ventilation shafts are set to be sealed in a bid to starve the fire of oxygen.

“It’s a volatile situation. There’s no question about that,” Mr Last said.

“They’re endeavouring to put the fire out at the moment, and they’re saying that could take some time to bring it under control.

“(I)…certainly want to acknowledge those workers that are out there conducting that work – it’s hazardous, it’s dangerous.”

The Mining and Energy Union said support was being offered to workers as the Moranbah community contemplated the site’s future.

The mine produces a major share of Anglo American’s steelmaking coal output.

“We are aware that many workers are feeling shocked and traumatised by Saturday’s event,” the union said in a statement.

“We are working directly with members and with the company to ensure workers receive counselling and other health support they require at this time.”

The union said workers remain on normal pay at this stage but “prospects for re-opening the mine remain unclear for now”.

“We are holding regular meetings with Anglo to discuss the evolving situation at the mine and the outlook for workers,” it said.

“We acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of all involved in managing the situation at Grosvenor, which has been frightening and upsetting for the whole mining community.”

Mr Last said if the mine was closed, it would have a “big impact” on the Moranbah community.

“I have grave concerns about the mine ever re-opening. Having said that, worker safety has to come first,” he said.

“If a decision is made to shut the mine, I’d like to think that Anglo would be doing everything they possibly can to find alternate jobs.

“It’s an uncertain time for those workers who are basically in limbo now.”

Anglo American’s Australian CEO, Daniel van der Westhuizen, met with authorities in Moranbah on Tuesday for an update on the fire’s impact.

Smoke that has been billowing for days from the mine has “visibly reduced”, with no air quality concerns raised to date.

Anglo on Tuesday said it would work closely with authorities to plot the next steps “with a view to implementing a safe restart and continued safe operation at the appropriate time”.

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