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The days of dangerous mine work seems to be a relic of a bygone era. However, new cases of a long-dead disease raises a series of difficult questions.
According to best estimates by the Mine Safety Institute of Australia, 665 people died in local mines between 1882 and 2000. After that, there were a few dozen more. In 2013/2014, for instance, 16 people perished.
Last year, a mine in Goonyella “spontaneously” combusted (there were no deaths there, but the smoke and debris could be seen for miles), and there were three fatalities in Collinsville, Bengalla and Rockhampton. These are the people who were killed (it is difficult to find the amounts of men and women who were “only” injured), and we are not even talking about mine-related illnesses yet. I’ll do that in a minute, but let’s first look at a few disasters of the past (and wonder if we want to go back to that).
A lot of the biggest catastrophes took place in our own backyard, the Illawarra. One of the first ones was in Bulli, in March 1887. There are two versions of what happened.
The mine owners blamed the miners themselves, maintaining that they had removed the protective gauze of a Davy lamp, which caused an explosion. Miners themselves, later backed by an inquiry, were convinced that Bulli was a “gassy” mine, with lots of methane, that there was not enough venting and that management was very lax about safety.
On the day, 81 men and boys died, the youngest just 14 years old. Some perished in the explosion, others slowly underground from carbon monoxide poisoning. One man took three months to die from gas poisoning, another two years from burns.
The bodies were laid out in a temporary mortuary in the workshop of the local blacksmith, where their wives and mothers had to come to identify them.
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When the “accident” happened, the mine had just been closed for some months, because the workers had gone on strike to protest their low wages and horrible working conditions. The place blew up only days after they had returned. During the strike, they had had no income, and this became a serious problem after the disaster. Over 50 women and almost 200 children were now without a breadwinner and had no money coming in. With the strike just behind them, they were already doing it tough.
The Australian population was great, though: it donated 42,534 pounds for a relief fund, to help the stricken families. Seeing that Bulli primary school had just been built for 550 pounds, you can imagine how much dough that was. The problem was that the money went to the mining companies; the women and children didn’t get a cent. It took an act of NSW Parliament in 1910, 23 years later, to get the money released. By that time it was far, far too late for the Bulli families. All they got was a memorial, which had another four names added to it in November 1965, after an underground fire.
In 1902, it was on again, this time at the Mount Kembla Colliery. It was 31 July, the day when an arbitration hearing into mine safety was held in the Wollongong courthouse. In the morning, the Mount Kembla mine owners testified that they were absolutely sure their mine was safe. At 2.03pm, an explosion could be heard, and although Mount Kembla was 11 kilometres away, everybody knew what was going on. There were flames 12 meters high, iron and wood was flying everywhere and even the buildings on the surface were quickly turned to rubble and buried under tonnes of debris.
Amidst the cloud of black smoke and dust, a rescue party was assembled. One person who went down was Henry MacCabe, who had also helped out at Bulli. A few hours later he was dead, poisoned by toxic fumes. At the end of the day, 96 men and boys were pronounced deceased. One body, that of Mickey Brennan, was never found. His father kept searching for him for two years. Then he walked into the ocean and drowned himself. Again, the managers blamed the miners. Again, there was an inquiry that exonerated them.
In fact, there was a Royal Commission, whose recommendations were ignored. And again, there was no compensation, nothing to help out the survivors or the families of the dead.
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Sure, these are old examples. But just in case you thought that mining was now safe, let me give you some newer ones. There were 75 dead miners at the mine in Mount Mulligan in Queensland in September 1921, where it took five months to get the bodies out. In 1979, 14 people died when an excess of methane ignited an explosion in the mine at Appin. In October and November 2016, there were two near misses there, just to reiterate that nothing is ever learnt when money is involved.
There were 29 dead at the Pike River Mine in Greymouth, on the South Island of New Zealand, in 2010. Those bodies are still in the mine, even after tireless advocacy by their families. On February 23 of this year, 22 miners died in China. Two days before, somebody was killed in Moranbah, Queensland. And, of course, we remember Beaconsfield, the incident in 2006, where one person was killed, two were trapped for 14 days and Bill Shorten cemented his reputation.
So those are the “accidents”. In March, the Mine Dust Diseases Victims Group made it into the media with some astonishing news. Black Lung, a disease that used to kill many, many thousands of miners, was thought to have been eradicated 30 years ago. But then, in the early 2000s, new cases suddenly cropped up. In 2016, a Senate Inquiry was held, which established “catastrophic failings” in regulatory and monitoring systems.
Tellingly, the report was called “Black Lungs, White Lies”. In it, experts said that so-called coal worker’s pneumoconiosis was “totally preventable” and that the reemergence was due to slackness by mining companies and governments. At the time, there were 21 confirmed cases. Now, the Victims Group has 102 people on its books suffering from either black lung or mine dust lung disease. 250 suspected cases are awaiting assessment. The interesting thing here is that of the 30,000 cases that have been reviewed, most get a “no” in Australia and a “yes” by expert doctors in the US.
Federal MP Michelle Landry thought the handling of the situation by the Queensland government an “epic failure” and called for a compensation scheme funded by the mining companies. Of course, nothing has happened yet, and looking back to history doesn’t instil me with much hope in that regard.