Whittall’s mining career began in 1981 with BHP (AIS) Collieries at Corrimal Colliery as a trainee mine surveyor when Corrimal was just completing its last shortwall in preparation for its first longwall. During his first years there routine roof bolting at the face replaced bars and props.
Once his survey qualifications were completed he began a Mining Degree at Wollongong Uni. When Corrimal shut in 1985 he moved to Collieries Central Office for a couple of years of surface surveying and then to Kemira Colliery in 1987. At that time Kemira was still doing pillar extraction and the first longwall face was introduced there in the late 1980s. In 1991 Whittall moved to Illawarra Coal’s Technical Services team to do research work into outburst prediction. This followed two notable fatal incidents in the district.
From 1992 to 1999 he worked in various roles at Tower and Appin mines as shift undermanager, UMIC project manager and mine manager. In 2000 he joined the Dendrobium Project as mining manager during the feasibility study and later mine manager for the startup of the mine.
“After 12 months assessing the viability of coal bed methane extraction within Illawarra Coal’s leases I resigned from Illawarra Coal to take up the very different but extremely exciting challenge of starting a new hydraulic mining operation, Pike River Coal, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. In February this year I moved to Greymouth with my wife, Leanne, and our three children,” Whittall said.
A keen squash player he has joined the local club and is getting to know some Coasters (a great experience he says) and has taken up trout fishing. Whittall described the West Coast as a very outdoors culture with typical conversations revolving around fishing, duck shooting season (or shooting just about anything else for that matter) and the whitebait season.
“Finding the balance between a startup mine and experiencing the West Coast is a challenge to look forward to,” he said.
ILN:What is your earliest mining memory?
PW: When I started with BHP Collieries I was interviewed and employed by head office. I started at Corrimal and worked in the survey office next door to a very fiery mine manager, Harry Marsh. I has never been introduced to him and after a couple of weeks I was standing on an oil drum (no ladders for us then) shining my light on the back-sight when Harry came walking up the road. Harry saw me there, walked up to me and held his cap lamp within a couple of inches of my nose and asked in a very aggressive voice “who the f%$& are you?” I muttered some incoherent response and Harry just shook his head and mumbled off up the heading. An inauspicious start to my career.
ILN: What made you choose mining as a career?
PW: I grew up in Wollongong near the road up to Corrimal Colliery and my father was a foreman with an earthmoving firm which had contracts handling coal in the steelworks. Later he was a manager with Brambles hauling coal from South Bulli. 1981 was a good year for getting jobs and I chose mining because at the time was attracted to the role of the mine surveyor and I had been underground for a visit and just loved the underground environment.
While waiting for the results of my job applications to the mines I was offered a job in the then Bank of NSW to become an accountant which I accepted. Beside the Bank Manager I was the only other male in a large branch. Having gone to an all boys school it was a tough decision to make at 18 when I was offered the chance to leave the bank for the mines after only a month surrounded by women for the first time. I must admit that for a while there I really missed that bank staff!
ILN: When was your first underground visit?
PW: During high school I was in Scouts and Venturers. Our Leader worked at West Cliff and arranged an underground visit when I was 16. I just loved it. He always spoke of the strong camaraderie in the mines and it sounded exciting, which it is.
ILN: What was your favourite job in a coal mine?
PW: I have lots or different jobs, both surface and underground, but the job type that I like the most is a startup role which needs to combine technical, operational and organisational activities. Dendrobium was a great experience for that and Pike River is already challenging me in more broader areas. Seeing a mine develop as a technical and economic success and also a strong team of people is a great thing.
ILN: What was your least favourite job?
PW: Just prior to Kemira Colliery closing in late 1991 I was working as a mining engineer but there were not a lot of other activities except extracting the last block of coal so I went into the longwall to lend a hand and to get some more skills for a few weeks. The tailgate roof was really heavy and as it was a coal roof the last two chocks kept getting buried on each push. My job, the deputy told me, was to shovel out the tailgate chocks – after every push! Very exciting for the first few hours but the novelty soon wore thin. At least I got to operate the chocks and even drive the shearer when it was in the tailgate so it wasn’t all bad.
ILN: Who, or what, has most influenced your mining career?
PW: No single person has had a profound influence on my career. I have always admired individuals who were not afraid to lead and did so while maintaining a mutual respect with their men. I admired this in my own father and have found these same qualities in some good miner drivers and deputies through to general managers.
ILN: What do you consider your best mining achievement?...click here to read on.