Profits go up in smoke at BHP-Billiton mine
An eyewitness account
At approximately 8.00am on Thursday July 22 a large hydraulic excavator (a Leibherr 996) caught fire at BHP Billiton's Mt Arthur open cut coalmine on the outskirts of Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley, NSW. This machine that caught fire was fairly new, having done only 10,000 hours of work since being commissioned last year. The fire totally gutted the digger to the extent that at this stage it will not be repaired. A replacement could cost nearly $9 million. As the emergency was called, the on-shift supervisor took control of proceedings. He directed all available mines rescue trained personnel to make their way to the fire and all water trucks that were close to make their way there as well. The mine water trucks are fitted with fire fighting equipment i.e., a front mounted monitor that is controlled from inside the truck cabin as well as being plumbed for hand held hoses. The first truck to attend the fire (A 789 Caterpillar with a 190- ton water tank) could not get close enough to use the monitor effectively because of the position the digger was in so hand held hoses were the only alternative. The hoses were attached to the water truck and the water was flowing for just a few minutes when a hydraulic hose that feeds the water pump on the truck blew stopping the water flow onto the fire. This caused enormous panic as the in-pit fitter was called to take the blown hose off and replace it with a spare one, but before this could be done the oil in the hydraulic tank on the truck had to be topped up in order to move the broken down truck out of the way. The call was made to the pit service truck to come and fill the oil tank straight away. The serviceman, already on his way, arrived a few minutes later but could not get to the broken down truck as his access was blocked by light vehicles. These were the vehicles of onlookers and people from mines rescue who had not been advised to park their cars elsewhere. The call was made to get the rest of the water truck fleet to the fire as soon as possible as by this time the fire was really taking hold. The other water trucks were parked about 2.5kms away, at the water-truck ready line, fully loaded ready to go if ever needed. The first two trucks reached (numbers 55 and 57), both old Euclid dumpers that have been converted into water trucks, would not start causing further concern to the fire-fighters. In addition, the tank on 55 was bone dry and 57 was half empty. The rule in the pit is that when the water trucks were not in use they were to be parked loaded ready to go if needed in an emergency as was the case on Thursday last. The next truck tried was a Wabco, which did manage to start but could not move as the park brake was locked on due to excessive air leaks. The brakes finally came off after 10 minutes of building up air pressure to release them and the old Wabco was on its way to the fire. Being an electric drive truck, it was fairly slow getting to the fire and when finally arriving could not get anyway close enough because the ground was too steep for the electric drive. It took 15 minutes to get water on the fire after the first truck had broken down, giving the fire a big head start. So the person in charge called for backup from the local fire brigade who responded straight away. No problems starting those trucks. The mine has its own rescue vehicle that can carry 2000 litres of water which was used. It carried an assortment of rescue and recovery equipment — everything needed for an emergency including foam to smother an oil fire. The, the three 20-litre drums were soon used and more drums of foam were needed. A message was sent to the mine store to have all the drums ready to be picked up as they were needed urgently and a vehicle was on its was to collect them. The storeman replied that they were not in the store and he could not find any. This caused further panic and a frantic search revealed no drums of the urgently needed fire foam for oil in or around the new workshop. The new rescue shed was checked as well, the searchers coming up empty handed again. A suggestion that there may be some drums of foam in the old Bayswater rescue shed was made and off the searchers went only to get lost. The driver of the vehicle had never been to the Bayswater shed, he was calling for directions over the 2-way radio. Finally, getting to the shed, they found the gate locked and no key to get in. Back to the Mt Arthur store the searchers went to get the key for the old rescue shed. They returned to find 12 old drums of the urgently needed foam. This whole exercise to get the drums to the fire where needed, took more than 30 minutes. It was too late, the fire had really taken hold and could not be effectively fought with the badly organised team in attendance. Luckily no- one was hurt during this fiasco. The circumstances leading up to this incident are also of considerable concern, as the fire is believed to be due to a blown hose in the engine house squirting oil onto hot components and so causing the oil to ignite. For some time prior to the fire the operators of this machine had reported to the pit production bosses and maintenance people that the oil leaks were getting worse and needed repairing. They were told to keep the machine working, that the leaks would be done at the next service. The situation had got that bad that one operator told me that the machine had leaked 450 litres of oil between first lunch break and second lunch break which is 10.30am till 2.30pm — four hours. All along nothing was done which proves the point that most of the big companies don't care about there employees' safety when it comes to production. Workers are frightened to say anything to the bosses in relation to safety for fear of being told off, despite the company placing notices on boards relating to on the job safety. We have regular toolbox talks which are mostly about company plans to increase production with little rewards to the worker. Since the smoke has cleared and the fire gone out it would now seem that the insurance problem must be sorted out as all the parties concerned are pointing the finger at each other. The supplier Leibherr is claiming that BHP-Billiton would not allow them enough time to carry out the repairs the machine was so much in need of, the company saying the machines are to work because of contractual obligations. The company along with the union, mines rescue people, check inspector and occupational health and safety people are holding top level investigations into the incident and hopefully coming up with a plan so that this kind of situation cannot occur again. As soon as results are available they will be forwarded to The Guardian.