On November 14, 1996, miners Edward Batterham, 48, Damon Murray, 19, John Hunter, 36, and Mark Kaiser, 30, were driving a development section at the Gretley colliery when the continuous miner broke through into the flooded workings of the old Young Wallsend Colliery. Water rushed into the mine, drowning the four men.
In a judgement handed down on Monday, NSW Industrial Relations Commission Justice Patricia Staunton found the companies and three individuals guilty of a raft of safety breaches.
The Newcastle Wallsend Coal Co, its parent company Oakbridge, Gretley mine manager Richard Porteous, manager John Romcke and mine surveyor Mark Robinson, were found guilty of breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Five other undermanagers at the mine had charges against them dismissed. Gretley is now owned by Xstrata Coal.
The reason development driveage broke through to the older workings, abandoned since 1912, was because ‘record tracings’ supplied to mine managers at the time for mine planning purposes by the NSW Department of Mineral Resources were incorrect.
“The workings depicted in RT 523 Sheets 2 and 3 as workings of the Young Wallsend Colliery in a Top and Bottom Seam were not only wrong but proved to have disastrous consequences,” the judgement read.
An ex-mine manager closely involved with the case said the process used at the time by the management team to assess previous workings reflected the then management practice.
“At the time all NSW mine management, without exception, had great faith in documents supplied by the DMR. A record tracing would be treated as gospel.”
But under s50(1) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1983, individuals involved in the management of a corporation hold an absolute responsibility related to all issues at a mine, roles typically filled by the general manager or mine manager.
This burden of absolute responsibility is one reason many mine managers have left the industry and the impact of these findings is expected to exacerbate this exodus.
The ex-mine manager told International Longwall News, “Can I be confident at all times I can satisfy enough absolute control to satsify the absolute requirements of the act? The answer has to be no.”
Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union general president Tony Maher as saying the commission's convictions were historic and long overdue.
"It is the first time in the 200-year history of the NSW coal industry that anyone has been convicted for the loss of life, despite more than 3000 miners being killed in the state's coalmines," Maher told the paper.
On the statement of the case being long overdue, the industry agrees. For the past seven years Romcke and Porteous have lived with the threat of a conviction hanging over their heads, with little said in the general media about the substantial personal price these two men have paid and continue to pay for the accident.
The general industry view holds that the three men are being offered as scapegoats.
Another possible outcome of the judgement has implications for any future accidents. “If this is the direction things go, should there be an incident there will be no incentive to seek the root cause. The focus for management will be to protect themselves,” the ex-mine manager said.
Sentences against the companies and individuals will be handed down at a later date. The men convicted face maximum fines of about $50,000, and the corporations 10 times that amount. Whether their manager’s certificates of competency will be removed once the convictions are registered is unclear.
The judgement comes as unions are demanding the introduction of industrial manslaughter legislation, which would provide terms of imprisonment for those responsible for workplace deaths.