Damaged Mine Costs Climb in U.K. Strike

(World Mining Equipment. Excerpt)

The real costs of Britain’s miners’ strike can be measured in mines and jobs lost forever due to flooding, fires, collapsed supports, or the influx of dangerous methane gas. When the strike ended, 53 coal faces and 13 salvage faces had been lost. Another 85 faces and 60 roadways were in danger.

The floods, fires, and unworkable faces often occurred because striking miners refused to let maintenance supervisors into the pits to complete necessary safety work. Lost jobs, which could number in the thousands, provide an ironic note, since the main issue of the strike was the union’s demand to keep uneconomical pits open to preserve employment.

No formal strike vote was ever taken among union members. Even before the end of the action, about 51% of all miners returned to work, attracted by wage bonuses and the realization that the walkout was not achieving its goals.

Working mines were largely in the Midlands, leaving pits in pickets guarded the entrances – particularly in Wales and Yorkshire – at greatest risk.

Geology Not on Strike
Miners may strike, but nature does not. Geological conditions that are inherently dangerous during operations continue to need attention during a strike. Supervisors are in charge of safety conditions in the collieries. This includes watching for methane gas buildup and flooding, checking ventilation, insuring that roof supports are functioning properly, and monitoring the conditions of roadways and coal faces.

National Union of Miners (NUM) officials, however, encouraged picketing members to prevent supervisors from crossing their lines. The degree to which supervisors could keep a mine in good repair during the strike depended in part on the conditions of each mine, which varied considerably. Outside the pit, getting NUM approval to enter a strike-bound mine depended on the strength and sympathies of local union members toward the walkout. Safety inspections and repair work unusually followed intense lobbying by supervisors and management, according to Ralph Rawlinson, the Technical Director of Britain’s National Coal Board.

“One by one, people pressed away at the NUM officials and local workmen and suggested that the work should be done. It was an ever-changing pattern of support and cooperation, Rawlinson said.

Geologic pressures caused many of the problems. “Simply put, the roof starts to lower and the ground starts to lift up,” said Rawlinson. “The hydraulically powered roof supports used in long-wall coal faces can offer support to only a limited height.” The supports are cantilevered between working areas of coal faces and are not designed to sit idly and resist the earth’s forced for an indefinite time. Much of the equipment is currently stressed beyond its design. “The supports bend and split because they can’t handle the weight.”

There was little that safety teams could do where rood supports were concerned, other than inspect the equipment and chart its deterioration. Even when the NUM allowed the supervisors to take action, the only real insurance against deterioration of hydraulic equipment was to use it.

“The essence of success for a long-wall face is to keep moving,” Rawlinson explained. “Once a face is exhausted, you must move the equipment out of the mine or onto a new coal face. Maintaining a powered roof support when it is standing still is meaningless. The real answer is to work some coal and get the coal face to move forward.”

Flooding Closes Pits
While the conditions of roof supports were a matter of concern everywhere, flooding was a more localized problem. It was a particular concern in South Wales, according to Peter McNestry, the General Secretary of the National Association of Overmen, Deputies, and Shotfirers (NACODS). “Thirteen pits could be lost in South Wales,” he said. “We aren’t even sure of the full extent of the damage because there was a total strike in South Wales and our people haven’t been able to get into the mines.”

The damage flooding can cause is considerable. Rising water levels can interrupt ventilation, which must move down one shaft, through the underground workings, and up another shaft. Pumps must be operated and maintained as pipelines, removing water from coal faces. Regaining access to a flooded shaft implies setting up an auxiliary ventilation system. Small fans and tubing must be brought in and the roadway degassed by length, and then a new pump must be installed.

Based on the past history of a mine, the supervisors anticipated which coal faces could be flooded. The task then was convincing the NUM to allow them into the pit to take corrective action. Such was the case at the Askern Main Colliery in Yorkshire.

“We anticipated flooding because of changing patterns of ventilation we detected,” explained Rawlinson. “In that case, the NUM allowed the supervisors to inspect, and they found the flooding we had anticipated.” Even so, the pit is still in jeopardy.

Before the supervisors could enter Askern Main, the NUM had to allow capping work at the pit head. British law requires that the winding rope of the pit cage be renewed every two years and recapped every six months. At no less than 15 mines, that capping procedure has not been done because of the length of the strike, so no one can legally enter the mines for whatever reason.