Saturday 17 September 2011

Disaster at Gleision Colliery, Godre'r Graig, West Glamorgan. 15 September 2011.

The Gleision Colliery is roughly 18 km to the northeast of Swansea. It is Wales's smallest coal-mine, with less than 20 employees. Gleision is a drift mine, a mine that is cut in from the side of a hill, so that it is possible to walk from the entrance to the coal face, as opposed to descending via a pit. In Gleision's case a small railway runs from the entrance to the coalface.

Coal trucks at the Gleison Colliery.

At 9.15 am on Thursday 15 Saturday an explosion at the mine lead to the collapse part of the roof of the mine and the flooding of a large section of the mine. At the time there were seven miners working at the pit, three of whom made it back to the surface and called the emergency services. One of these men was immediately taken to hospital, having ingested a large amount of dirty water; the remaining two remained at the mine to assist with rescue attempts for the four miners remaining in the colliery, who had been working 90 m bellow the surface at the time of the flood.

The four missing men were named as Charles Breslin (62), David Powell (50), Garry Jenkins (39) and Philip Hill (45). All are described as extremely experienced and competent miners.

Initial attempts at recovering the lost men involved the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service and Mines Rescue Service, working with volunteer divers from the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team. Unfortunately the waters proved to be too murky and debris filled for diving, so the rescuers concentrated on pumping oxygen into the mine and water out. There have been problems with methane at the mine in the past, but this does not appear to have been a problem on this occasion. A specialized micro-seismometer was brought in from Sure Wave Technologies of Cheshire to help search for any sounds produced by trapped miners.

A diagrammatic representation of the flooding at the Gleision Colliery.

At 8.30 on Friday morning South Wales Police reported the discovery of the body of one of the miners, although the rescuers were not able to reach or identify the body. Rescue attempts continued in the hope that the remaining miners had found their way to a pocket of air somewhere on the far side of the flood. At 1.30 pm the police announced the discovery of a second body, this time at the face where the miners had been working. At 2.50 pm the water levels had fallen low enough that the rescue team were able to begin clearing away debris; twelve minutes later a third body was found. The final body was found slightly after 6 pm.

The Gleision Colliery has been in existence since the 1960s, and was privatized in 1993, but there have been mines in the area since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. It is close to the River Tawe and is prone to flooding, as well as having methane problems. It is likely that the flood was caused by waters entering the Gleision mine from an old excavation. In theory miners should not work within 45 m of an abandoned tunnel, but with many old workings in the area there is a danger of encountering mine which are not recorded.

An enquiry will now be initiated by the South Wales Police, which will be taken over by the Health and Safety Executive once any criminality on behalf of the mine's owners has been ruled out. Coal Direct Ltd. took control of the colliery in 2009, after the previous owners went bankrupt, and had gained permission to expand excavation on condition that they also improved health and safety and flood provision at the mine.

Mining is an inherently dangerous industry, and even with excellent safety standards accidents will happen. That the UK has not had a major mining disaster in some years is due largely to the closure of many of its pits - transferring production largely to countries with poorer safety records. The Tawe Valley mines have a particularly bad history for mining accidents. The most recent was in 1949 when a gas explosion killed two men at the nearby Tarenni Colliery (abandoned in 1949). The worst flood recorded in the valley also affected the Tarenni Valley, killing five miners in 1909; this was caused by entry of water from the abandoned Ynesgeinon mine.