The Guardian August 4, 2004


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.

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