| MPUMALANGA

Urgent need for public inquiry into Lily mine disaster

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We need to know how it happened to prevent another catastrophe

Photo of mine crater
Before and after the collapse at Lily Mine. Photo from Twitter
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On 16 September 1986, there was a massive underground collapse at the Kinross coal mine, which resulted in the death of 177 workers. Their bodies were never recovered.

On the 5 February 2016, in a major land subsidence at the Lily Vantage gold mine in Barberton, Mpumalanga, workers Pretty Mabuza, Solomon Nyarenda and Yvonne Mnisi were buried alive. They had been in a surface office container directly above the section of a crown pillar that collapsed. The remain buried in the mine.

The recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report found that most of the gold exported from South Africa between 2000 and 2014 [some $113.6 billion] was unreported and thus untaxed. The Chamber of Mines do not deny that such wealth left the country, but argue that it was legal.

Lily Mine management wrote to Cape Peninsula University of Technology [CPUT] to ask it to take action against me and also complained to the Press Ombud about articles written on the 19 June 2016 in the Sunday Independent, which raised questions over safety compliance by Lily Mine around the 5 February disaster.

Section 65 of the Mine Health and Safety act states: ‘The Chief Inspector of Mines must direct an inspector to conduct an inquiry into any accident or occurrence at a mine that results in the death of any person.’

Despite this, a public inquiry has not happened. The workers have been abandoned.

The Press Ombud dismissed the complaint from Lily mine: ‘Even though the matter was still under investigation, I do not believe that reporting on the issue was premature – given the huge public interest in the matter. Surely, Mahomed was justified in airing his views, and likewise the newspaper in reporting them.’ (Johan Retief, 23 Aug 2016)

The collapse

The main causes of mines collapsing and the formation of sinkholes are due to activities such as drilling, incorrect supporting systems of tunnels, broken water- or drain pipes and improperly compacted soil.

It was clarified in numerous reports that the crown pillar at the mine collapsed. A crown pillar is a protective underground cover, which is supposed to safeguard workers from mine collapse, while operations are taking place. It is much like a roof for a house.

There is an established body of knowledge on design, maintenance and early warning systems with regard to crown pillar usage in mines. (Carter, T, 2014: Guidelines for use of the Scaled Span method for surface crown pillar stability assessment). 500 crown pillars were studied, as well as 70 cases of pillar collapse since the 1980s.

The problem is that post-1994, the government has liberalised, not strengthened, already weak mine safety regulations. The trend has been towards self-regulation by the mine bosses. The Lily mine disaster shows, together with the massive unreported flight of gold from the country, that self-regulation has failed.

Mine design is central to prevent crown pillars from collapsing. The Canadian Centre for Excellence in mining Innovation [CEMI] outlines a detailed process for surface pillar design and factors to be considered. It states: ‘The emplacement of surface installations directly above a possible surface crown pillar is not recommended.’ It also notes with concern that most mines design their crown pillars arbitrarily.

Lily mine

The Lily mine is situated along fault lines in the Barberton Greenstone complex. The major gold deposits are along the fault lines in the region. In this case, there was open cast mining from 2000, which was converted to shallow depth mining.

Considering the pictures of the cross-section of the mine on the company website, it is evident that the company indeed had a clear picture of the thickness and concentrations of the gold-ore bearing areas, to quite a substantial depth. The company would therefore have been aware of the potential weak areas.

The most important objective of preventative measures is to keep doing regular observations and to keep the support work and weight loads up to standard. The Lily mine management needs to explain what measures they took to ensure an early warning system and to make such data public so that the necessary lessons can be learnt for the future. Geotechnical companies in South Africa confirm the availability of relatively cheap early warning equipment. The equipment used to detect any seismic activity within a mine is relatively cheap, easily installed and easy to operate.

The literature shows that there are signs over an extended period before a crown pillar collapse occurs: ground movement, deterioration of ground conditions, high stress signs, rock noises, large falls of ground. The question also arises whether the company extracted ore from the crown pillar, and if so, what safety measures did it put in place.

A question also arises over the haste with which the company wanted to reopen the mine to get their projected 50,000 ounces of gold per annum.

Recommendations

The mineworkers at Lily mine should be interviewed as there is evidence that some of them may have alerted management of danger signs. December Mazibuko, the husband of missing worker Pretty Mazibuko, indicated they were aware of dangers: ‘There were signs that something like this would happen. People have been hurt countless times in that mine … all they care about is making money.”

All surface installations that are above crown pillars must be moved to safer positions

The unions and other stakeholders should lodge an urgent Promotion of Access to Information Act application to gain access to all the geotechnical and surveying reports, early detection methods, prevention measures as well as emergency plans that were put in place by Lily Vantage Gold mine.

The investigation by the Department of Mineral Resources and a Public Inquiry, as allowed for by the Mine Health and Safety Act, should first be completed before mining activities can continue. First, new safety guidelines on prevention, early detection, emergency plans and reporting on all injuries and deaths need to be developed.

Consideration should be given to the use of remote drilling techniques, that do not place any rescuer at risk, to retrieve the bodies of Mabuza, Nyarenda and Mnisi. This would help with future rescue operations.

The families of the three workers who died should be adequately compensated by the company and by the state.

There should be urgent mechanisms for affected employees to be paid until the mine reopens as the subsidence was not their fault

Urgent education and training for all mine employees on the changes being implemented.

The author is an academic based in Cape Town.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

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TOPICS:  Mining

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