Sunday 28th November , 2010
Q+A’s Paul Holmes interviews David McAteer - former head of mine safety USA and investigator of April’s West Virginian
Points of interest:
- “We should not have accidents of this magnitude, of this size in developed countries… because we know how to mine
- “It’s fair to say it was unlikely that they [the miners] would have survived that [first blast], but not with 100%
- Global expert urges use of blackboxes in mines to record and provide better information
- If there was no continuous monitoring of methane levels at Pike River that was “an error”
The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning’s Q+A
can also be seen on tvnz.co.nz at, http://tvnz.co.nz/q-and-a-news
Q+A is repeated on TVNZ 7 at 9.10pm on Sunday nights and 10.10am and 2.10pm on Mondays .
DAVIT MCATEER interviewed by PAUL HOLMES
PAUL If anyone understands what Greymouth is going through at the moment, it’s the people of Montcoal, West Virginia. On
April 5 this year, shortly after 3pm, an explosion tore through a coal mine called the Upper Big Branch. Methane had
exploded, 29 miners were dead, two down there did survive. But the similarities with Pike River are striking. Davitt
McAteer was, in the 1980s under the Clinton Administration, the Assistant Secretary of Labour responsible for mine
safety across the United States . He’s a world expert. And after the explosion at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia he
was appointed to lead the official investigation into just what happened and why. Mr McAteer for 40 years has been
campaigning for mine safety. He says he’s still several months away from concluding his work, but if he knows anything
it’s that these sorts of accidents should not still be happening in developed countries. Davitt McAteer, we thank you
very much for joining us from Hagerstown and driving all the way into Maryland . Good morning.
DAVITT McATEER – Mine Investigator
Thank you for inviting me. Good morning.
PAUL First question to you is this one, really. Do we still have to expect fatal coal mine accidents in this day and age
with all the engineering and the technology we’ve got in developed countries?
DAVITT I think the answer is no. We should not have accidents of this magnitude, of this size in developed countries, or for
that matter around the world, because we know how to mine safely, we know how to mine without explosions; we do it day
in and day out. We know where the risks are and we know what precautions need to be taken, and we need to be applying
those on a daily basis, and we need to make certain that we build into precautions redundant systems that can keep
explosions from expanding and killing large numbers of people.
PAUL And Davitt, if we have got a rather busy presence of methane, as you had at Upper Big Branch and as we’ve had at Pike
River here obviously for some time, does that really have to become the first priority?
DAVITT No. We understand that in a coal mining setting we’re going to have methane in most instances. And therefore we ought
to take the precautions to remove that methane and either drill ahead of the mine and withdraw it out from underground
or, during the mining process, ventilate it.
PAUL Pike River seems to have had no ultimately continuous system of monitoring the methane. What would your view be of
DAVITT The facts are not clear just yet, but if there was no system for continuing the methane, then that is an error, and
that needs to be changed, and that needs to be changed in any mine. You have to be able to remove the methane from an
underground coal mine.
PAUL To be fair to Pike River , they had systems to monitor and remove the methane. The debate is whether they had a
DAVITT I understand that. The difficulty we have right at the moment is it’s premature to make conclusions about what happened
and what existed, and we have to wait and let the facts drive the investigations.
PAUL Can I ask you this too, and it might see a very amateur sort of a question, but if, as Pike River was doing, mining
into a hillside uphill, mining uphill, does that make the removal of methane more difficult at the coal face because the
methane’s gonna hang round, surely, at the coal face rather than drain away, or in open-cast mining disappear into the
DAVITT Well, methane is a migratory gas and it will reach the top, it will build up into a mine that has a slant that would
allow the air to go up. But you can build precautions into it. And you have to understand that when you’re making a
decision to mine in that fashion, that you have to mine with the ventilation that will ensure that you remove the
methane and ensure that you don’t have an explosion of this kind.
PAUL Davitt, we sent you the CCTV footage of the first blast last Friday, New Zealand time. Did you have a look at that?
From the entrance of the mine.
DAVITT I did have a look at that.
PAUL What were your impressions, looking at that? How big would you describe the magnitude of that?
DAVITT It was a significant explosion, an explosion with a large amount of force behind it. You have to look at that and say
that was a profound explosion in this mine.
PAUL Would it be fair to say that it’s probable that the miners, the 29 men, could not have survived that, inside the mine?
DAVITT I think it’s fair to say that it was unlikely that they would have survived that, but not 100% for certainty. Odder
things, stranger things have happened, but it is unlikely that they would have survived.
PAUL Another problem we had, of course, was communication, knowing where the fellows were, not being able to speak to the
miners. I know that your experience is very similar to that after the disaster April 5 this year at Upper Big Branch.
You had great difficulties, it took your people hours to get information about what had gone on down below. What can we
do about this?
DAVITT Well, we need to apply new technologies to the mining, and we’ve done some of that after the Sago Mine disaster in 2006
where we’ve improved the communications systems. Now, those improvements were not in place at the Upper Big Branch, but
there are improvements in the works, and those improvements need to be applied both in the United States and around the
world. Secondly, we need to understand that there can be new technologies that can be applied. We need, for example, to
have a black box on the continuous miner much like you have on an airplane; we need to have a black box on the long-haul
operations so that you can feed information out of the mine through a series of cables or hardened cables that will
allow us to have better information. Because as you’ve pointed out, once the explosion occurs, we’re really reliant upon
blind luck to know what’s going on there, and that can’t be. We can’t continue that kind of process.
PAUL No. Cos you mention aviation too, and one of the things all aircraft have flying around the United States , they’re
asked to transpond a certain radio frequency. And it looks like Pike River were entertaining this kind of transponder
idea in the helmet or in the light of the miners’ helmets. Isn’t there a requirement in the States to have transponders
DAVITT There is. After the Sago disaster of 2006 the Miner Act was passed, and there’s requirement for transponders, and they
were being put into place at the Upper Big Branch. They had not been put entirely into place. Some of those survived,
some did not survive the explosion at Upper Big Branch, but they did at least provide information where the last time
certain individuals were.
PAUL And can I ask you, finally, what is it like in a coal mine after an explosion such as Upper Big Branch or Pike River?
What’s it like down there?
DAVITT It’s a very sad place. It’s very difficult. You know that miners have lost their lives, that men have lost their lives,
and the only thing you can do is resolve to try to prevent it from occurring in another location.
PAUL Finally, from your long experience, Davitt, of campaigning for safety of men in mines, do the mining companies
constantly have to be pushed to be super-mindful of safety?
DAVITT The difficulty is that in mines the workplace changes every 24 hours, and so you might have a responsible
representative of a company one day, and the next day a fellow who’s not so responsible and that presents a problem. So
you do have to be very diligent about making certain that the precautions and the prevention methods are put into place
right away, every single day.
PAUL I suppose what I was referring to was after the Miners Act and those transponders became compulsory in American coal
mines, four years on, only 8% of those mines in the United States were using the transponders.
DAVITT Absolutely, absolutely. And you have to put requirements in the statute. Our experience in this country is if you don’t
put the requirements in the statute and don’t inspect to make certain it happens, they don’t happen. And that’s
unfortunate. And it shouldn’t need to be, but that’s the case. And yes, we have to have inspections and we have to
continue to inspect and continue to require that if you don’t do that, you’re penalised.