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Special Feature

Danger Underground

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

A cave-in at the Barapukuria underground mine killed one miner and injured twenty. Photo: Star File

Time stopped for the family members of miner Jahangir Alam on May 11, as news reached them of a cave-in at the Barapukuria coal mine. Jahangir, along with 33 other miners, was toiling nearly half a kilometre underground in one the mine shafts when the roof collapsed with a dull roar.

One miner was killed instantly while 19 others were trapped. The country's first such large-scale accident saw a day-long rescue operation comprising around 200 employees of Barapukuria Coal Mine Company Ltd (BCMCL), and the Chinese mining consortium CMC-XMC. Jahangir, and eighteen other trapped miners were finally pulled from the rubble and rushed to hospital.

“We were lucky to be able to rescue all but one,” said Nurul Alam, an official of BCMCL. “Around 8 pm the last trapped person, a Chinese miner named Swing, was rescued.”

Mining is a way of life in this quiet backwater in Dinajpur. So is death.

A few years ago, a British mining expert died from poisonous gas inhalation inside the mine. Another mine accident occurred there in 2004, in which four miners were trapped, and later rescued. The mine faced a major disaster in the late 1990s during its development phase, when underground water flooded the original shaft, stalling the mine's progress for many months. Ultimately it had to be re-designed.

So what makes underground mining so dangerous? Mining accidents can occur from a variety of causes. Explosions can occur due to buildup of gases such as methane. These explosions can result in mine walls collapsing. After a collapse, a new danger of asphyxiation occurs due to the presence of natural gas and hydrogen sulphide. In addition, flooding and general mechanical mishaps present themselves as a common danger to miners as they are sometimes miles underground and have very limited escape routes in the event of an unexpected emergency.

The Barapukuria underground coal mine has experienced almost all of the above challenges since production started in 2001. Experts have long warned of fatal design flaws in the underground mine. Many fear that a large-scale disaster might occur in the future if remedial measures are not taken immediately.

The roof collapse last week at the coal mine is now of great concern for the authorities, as many feel this incident is an indicator of lax safety and engineering practices.

“The accident could have been prevented if the Chinese contractor CMC-XMC Consortium took proper safety measures,” said an official of Barapukuria Coal Mine Company Ltd (BCMCL) on condition of anonymity.

Talking to reporters Dr. Hossain Monsur, chairman of Petrobangla, admitted that the accident happened due to technical glitches.

“It is really frustrating that the Energy Ministry and Petrobangla did not pay heed to the suggestions of NRB mining engineers when in June 2009 after spending few days in Barapukuria they came up with this very logical opinion about inadequate health, safety and environmental facilities,” complains Engineer Khondkar Abdus Saleque, ex-Director of Gas Transmission Company Limited (GTCL) Bangladesh. “Subsidence in underground mining is an inevitable impact. We tried to warn government policy makers time and again about its fatal impacts once subsidence started.”

Working in a coal mine is dangerous and backbreaking work. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Many analysts claim standard safety procedures are virtually non-existent at the Barapukuria mine. “Nobody cared for the safety of the poor miners working in an unhygienic and unsafe environment,” says one engineer. “Poor ventilation, inappropriate evacuation plans and lack of safety briefing are among the many lapses.”

Sources say that the accident occurred because the shaft called Phase 1108 was extremely vulnerable to sudden collapse, as it remained surrounded by “empty” coal seams.

Miners at Barapukuria say the roof collapsed eliciting a shockwave that reverberated up to a kilometer away.

"I was working inside the mine with others about a hundred metres away from the disaster spot," miner Masud Mia told the Daily Star after the accident. "We heard a loud bang around ten in the morning, and instantly realised that something was terribly wrong. We rushed to the nearby phone, and informed our surface office about the incident."

Villagers living nearby say many houses in the surrounding villages developed cracks after the incident. An inside source at the BCMCL said that although roof collapse is a common accident in underground mines, in this case the accident happened because the mining in Face 1108 was being done without creating any pillar to support the roof.

"Normally we create a coal pillar to support the roof. But sometimes we go for long wall mining without creating any prop. It is risky. But in the past, we extracted coal from another face that had no pillar," he said.

There are claims that the miners were feeling uncomfortable about the roof for a couple of days preceding the accident due to coal “slippage”. Some miners alleged that the BCMCL authorities used low quality timbers instead of steel support in the vacated phases. Coal extraction from the mine has remained suspended since the accident causing a loss of nearly Tk. 3 crore a day, while a team of Chinese mine experts try to address the faults.

The fatal accident has once again brought into focus the risks involved in mining deep inside the bowels of the earth. Considering the dangers inherent in the collapse of a mine shaft 500 metres below ground, the successful rescue operation should hold out some degree of reassurance for the miners exposed to constant risks. Yet experts feel the long wall mining technique employed by BCMCL needs to be brought under review to see if the subsidence of the roof was avoidable.

According to experts, the roof at such depths needs support during the extraction of coal. But reportedly no support mechanism was constructed to support the roof in the particular mineshaft that collapsed. This has led to accusations that the Chinese operator was involved in reckless cost cutting. “Where miners' safety is concerned, the slightest compromise in safety standard has to be discouraged,” stresses one analyst. Officials of the CMC-XMC Consortium were not available to comment.

The incident has also reopened the heated debate on whether open pit mining is preferable to underground mining. Environmentalists who oppose open pits have supported underground mining, saying open mines pollute the environment and destroy agricultural land. But many energy experts and business leaders say open pit mining should be the preferred method where the coal is near the surface, as is the case in Barapukuria and Phulbari, since it results in extraction of at least 80 percent of the coal resource.

“The extraction of natural resources is never going to be pain free,” says Dr M. Tamim, Chairman and Professor of Petroleum & Mineral Resources Engineering at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet). “In my opinion, in the current scenario, there is no alternative to coal. We have proven coal resources -- It's a question of what price we are willing to pay to get our fuel. ”

Syeda Rizwana Hasan of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) thinks the government should not go for open pit mining of coal since it would harm the environment and destroy fertile land in the Dinajpur area. But many business leaders feel the debate must be reframed.

“We are losing agricultural land everyday,” says Hossain Khaled, Managing Director of Anwar Group and former president of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI). “Think of the amount of fertile land lost due to housing settlements such as Purbachal Project. Nobody opposes that because people realise we need housing. We must come to the realisation that an abundant supply of power is essential if we are to develop economically.”

“People say farmers will lose their livelihood. But what if we can put more people to work in the industries that will be built if we have enough power? Do we want to be a developed nation or dream about living in a kind of rural agricultural utopia?”

In Barapukuria, too, the debate is being reframed. In this small community, tucked in the low, rolling hills of Dinajpur, almost everyone is connected to each other -- and by extension, to the coal mine that stretches below. So, when residents learned early on May 11 that 20 miners had been trapped underground, they shared not only grief and anger - but also a sense of communal support.

The tragedy -- Bangladesh's worst mining accident -- has also caused at least some people here to reconsider the theory that underground coal mining is a better option for the locality than open pit mining.

"This has kind of made up my mind," says Morshed Manik, a local journalist and President of the North Bengal Mineral Resources Reporters Forum. “I think open pit mining, although it may be harmful to the environment to some degree, is preferable. At least the coal will not be stained with blood.

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