Australia: No Charges Over Deadly Explosion at Anglo American’s Grosvenor Mine

Last month, Queensland’s Occupational Health and Safety Prosecutor announced he would not press charges against any officials at giant mining company Anglo American over the May 6, 2020 explosion at its underground coal mine in Grosvenor in central Queensland. Five workers suffered horrific injuries.

Anglo American’s Grosvenor Mine (Photo: Australasian Mine Safety Journal)

Prosecutor Aaron Guilfoyle said: “Having assessed the evidentiary record against the Director of Public Prosecutions guidelines, I am not satisfied that there is a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction against any of the holders of obligations identified under the Coal Mining Safety and Health Act. 1999.”

It has been around eight months now since the Queensland Commission of Inquiry into the deadly incident delivered its findings. The survey was commissioned by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Queensland state Labor government as part of a damage control exercise aimed at containing widespread outrage over the May 6 disaster and whitewashing its own responsibility in the disaster, alongside that of the company.

However, even in the highly orchestrated proceedings of the official investigation, it proved impossible to completely suppress the evidence that confirmed that Anglo’s drive to produce to maximize returns at all costs had created the conditions for the deadly methane explosion.

Suffice it here to review the main policies implemented by Anglo at its Grosvenor mine in the run-up to May 6.

The main results of the investigation show that the management of the mine:

  • Imposed a production rate that continually produced levels of methane gas exceeding the capacity of the mine’s gas drainage system, which could only at best handle the gas levels generated by mining 10,000 tons of coal per day . Production from Long Wall 104 (LW104) of the mine, where the five injured men worked, was frequently in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 tons, and sometimes as high as 28,000 tons per day.
  • Failed to cap production at a safe level when mining LW104, then implemented a system known as two-way mining to produce even higher levels of production, contributing to further elevation gas levels.
  • Abandoned a series of critical safeguards designed to manage gas levels before starting work on LW104 that would have taken a considerable amount of time to implement and delayed the start of production on the seam. These included pre-gas drainage of the seam during mining and development of an effective strategy to divert gas generated from the coal seams surrounding LW104 as cutting on the longwall continued.
  • Failed to carry out the required specific assessment of the risks of spontaneous combustion, either before the start of production on LW104 or at any time during its operation.
  • Failed to notify the Queensland Mines Inspectorate, which is supposed to enforce safety, of its failure to implement these measures.

However, with regard to the latest listed revelation, it should be clarified that the inspection’s close working relationship with Anglo included that its officials were in constant discussion. It is hard to believe that the inspection had no inclination towards the failure of the company to implement the required security measures.

The damning revelations above figured prominently in the 90,000 pieces of evidence handed over to the state government’s inspection at the conclusion of the investigation last August to enable it to write a report for the occupational health and safety attorney to review charges against identified officials. This included the Grosvenor management team responsible for enforcing production levels.

The lengthy six-month period, during which the inspection was supposed to review evidence and deliberate, was extended to wipe the disaster off the public radar and to diffuse widespread anger.

The cancellation of any prosecution by the Inspectorate is in line with the state Labor Government’s close collaboration with mining companies.

Relying heavily on mining royalties and all sorts of patronage from big business, the government has backed mining companies’ drive to cut costs through job cuts and ever-increasing casualization, a major factor in undermining workplace safety.

Responding to the Security Attorney’s decision, Stephen Smyth, Chairman of the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) of Queensland, said: “It is deeply unfair that a management team which oversaw the explosion of a mine suffers no consequences.

The union was, however, implicated at the center of the various official maneuvers, which were clearly aimed at blocking any prosecution and concealing responsibility.

First, the CFMEU enthusiastically backed the fraudulent commission of inquiry, selling it as “an opportunity for a thorough, wide-ranging and independent examination of shocking events”. Then the CFMEU hailed the investigation’s ineffective recommendations as the basis for “systemic improvement in the industry,” even though it left safety in the hands of the company and recommended no charges.

The union, in fact, accepted the fraud because it was as concerned as the government to prevent any disclosure of its own role in the security breach, including overseeing the mass casualization.

More tellingly, the union was clearly aware of the unsafe conditions at Grosvenor, because they had been told about them by the workers. But he did nothing to prevent production from continuing, leaving the workers to their fate.

Indeed, the main concern of the CFMEU, as always, was to maintain its role as a labor bargaining body. Through its positioning as the virtual arm of corporate management, the union bureaucracy reaps lucrative privileges, including six-figure salaries for many high-ranking officials.

The decision that no charges be brought for the Grosvenor explosion will act as a green light for the continued weakening of worker safety and its subordination to profit interests.

To fight to end the carnage, the workers must break definitively with the corporatized unions and with Labour, both of which are instruments of big capital.

New combat organizations, including grassroots committees independent of the CFMEU, must be formed to enforce basic security conditions. This must be linked to the struggle for a workers’ government that would implement socialist policies, including bringing the mines, as well as the banks and big business, under public ownership and democratic control of the workers.

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