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Firefighter shares US coal mine lessons locally
The Latrobe Valley’s vision to transform closed coal mines into lakes has become reality in some areas of the US, CFA’s Gavin Parker has discovered on a research trip.
The Traralgon Fire Station Senior Station Officer used his Emergency Services Foundation scholarship to visit five coal mines and four power stations across Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota in the United States and Saskatoon in Canada from September to October.
He also visited old mine sites in North Dakota including the former Truax-Traer Mine cluster, which has become a wildlife management area with a trout fishing pond and hiking tracks.
Gavin found this element of his research particularly timely, following Hazelwood coal mine operator Engie’s recent closure announcement and its plans for a lake.
Fire and accident risks were major considerations during the planning phase for Truax-Traer’s transformation, which Gavin believes would also be vital for stakeholders to work through if and when Hazelwood, Yallourn and Loy Yang mines become community water hubs.
“Truax-Traer put stringent safety planning and procedures in place, which were implemented during the development phase and continue post-transformation,” he said.
“Since 1977 in the United States, mining companies have been responsible for reclamation of mines.
“The Public Service Commission also administers the Abandoned Mine Lands Program, which works to eliminate potential or existing hazards associated with abandoned coal mines and uses money raised from coal royalties to fund the program.
“Coal mines are complex sites that pose significant community risk and rehabilitating such sites add more complications, so we can learn from these examples in the US to ensure we’re covering all bases.
“For instance, from an emergency services perspective, once a coal mine closes, there may be increased risk that members of the public enter the site and end up falling down a mine embankment, which would require a rescue operation.
“To minimise this risk, in the short term it would be important to continue monitoring the site and securing it with appropriate fencing and signage and longer term, the steepness of the mine batters (wall around mine) may need to be reduced, which would help prevent injury.”
Gavin’s research trip also highlighted Victorian processes that exceed US standards. A strong example was the stringent health and air quality monitoring in Victoria for workers at large industrial sites like coal mines.
“I took part in discussions about health issues of workers at a coal mine over there and heard their confusion on what the problem may be,” Gavin said.
“I mentioned at coal mine sites in the Latrobe Valley, CFA performs regular carbon monoxide testing on workers to quickly detect any indication of risk.
“It sounded like a few US workers may have been suffering from such poisoning so I suggested testing for this. It was like a light bulb went off for them because it made so much sense, yet they hadn’t thought to test for it. I was glad to have had an opportunity to showcase our industry raising the bar in health and safety Victoria.”
Gavin discovered several areas where Australia could learn from the US, particularly in relation to firefighting training and equipment based at industrial sites.
“Firefighters in the US can complete nationally accredited training and receive the same qualifications regardless of which fire service organisation they join,” Gavin said.
“Australia may benefit from reviewing firefighting training to become more consistent across agencies, states and territories, because at the moment there are differences which can make it difficult to move between and work alongside other agencies.”
Gavin visited coal mines where state-of-the-art supplementary fire suppression equipment had been installed on mobile plant equipment. This firefighting equipment enables workers to safely and remotely start putting out a fire straight away while emergency services are on their way.
He also saw significant investment in equipment for collecting, containing and suppressing combustible dust on inside power stations and on conveyer systems, which prevent and suppress fire.
“The ESF scholarship allowed me to gain this wonderful experience, meeting with industry experts and government officials to discuss a range of emergency response and preparedness strategy,” Gavin said.
Gavin is preparing a formal report on his findings and has planned a number of meetings with a range of stakeholders who may benefit from his research over the coming months, sharing contact details of some key experts he met during his trip.
Read more about Gavin’s trip on ABC Gippsland.
Check out his Facebook page here for more information.