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Lily Mine tragedy: Long wait for the truth

Jul 16 2017 06:00
Sizwe Sama Yende

A scene showing the collapsed area, the extent of the damage caused by the sinkhole and the rescue operations required at Lily gold mine in Barberton. Picture: vantage goldfields

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Johannesburg - Legal representatives for Lily Gold Mine workers and the family members of three mine workers whose bodies have not been recovered are waiting for the release of a report relating to the department of mineral resources’ inquiry into a mine collapse last February.

They allege that the mine itself was negligent, which caused the deadly rockfall.

The collapse at the mine entrance on February 5 last year caused a container office with three workers inside – Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyerende – to plunge 60m underground.

Seventy-five workers survived because they were already inside the shaft and were rescued unharmed.

The mine in Louisville near Barberton, Mpumalanga, is owned by Australian company Vantage Goldfields and has been closed and put under business rescue, leaving about 1 000 workers jobless, while management tries to raise R300 million.

Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the late workers’ families’ lawyers are hoping that an inquiry into the disaster will find that Vantage was negligent and that the National Prosecuting Authority will prosecute in the matter.

The department of mineral resources is due to announce its findings by the end of next month, and AMCU and mine management will present their arguments by July 28.

Vantage Goldfields CEO Mike McChesney was not available to comment.

AMCU attorney Thamsanqa Malusi told City Press that the outcome of this inquiry would set a precedent because this was the first case in South Africa dealing with the collapse of a crown pillar, a rock structure that is used to support the underground walls and to avoid a collapse.

Lily Mine started as an opencast mine. After mining most of the gold from the surface, mine management changed over to underground mining in 2011. They filled the surface where open-cast mining took place and left an 18m thick and 150m long crown pillar above the underground tunnels. This is a beam of rock that separates underground workings and the surface. They also left 5m wide vertical pillars in place for additional support.

There are various pillars separating the different levels of the mine, which are called sill pillars.

Malusi said: “These pillars were the same type of rock that was mined to get gold and, when the mine was not doing well financially, they mined the pillars.

“Workers told us under cross-examination that they were instructed to mine the pillars. That would, of course, affect the stability of the mine and this could have contributed to the collapse of the mine.”

According to evidence submitted during the inquiry, the mine had a history of at least four sill pillar failures before the crown pillar collapsed and blocked the entrance to the shaft last year.

The mine’s rock engineers found that the failures were due to weakening rock.

“After a while, the rock will become weak and collapse, which means the same thing happened to the rock pillar. Our argument is that the mine should have foreseen that this was going to happen to the crown pillar,” Malusi said.

He alleged that the mine had no plan in place to ensure that workers would not be injured if the crown pillar collapsed, and that they had erected many structures above the surface after filling it up – including the container office that fell during the disaster.

Malusi also said that they were expected to keep the surface dry where opencast mining happened. However, after initially installing a pump to remove excess water from the area and monitoring whether the ground was dry enough, they stopped this procedure in 2011.

“We don’t know how dry the surface was before the collapse and we don’t know if the pump was working,” Malusi said.

“After extraction, the ore was placed on this surface and sprayed with water at least six times a day. Water was percolating from the surface into the crown pillar. We think that, considering the history of pillar collapses and the presence of the water, the collapse of the crown pillar was foreseeable.”

Last month, Vantage Goldfields and Canadian company Galane Gold announced that they had decided to merge.

This transaction will finally lead to the reopening of Lily Mine, as well as its sister operation Barbrook Mine, as the needed R300 million for the operations to continue will be available.

The families of the three deceased mine workers have been paid R200 000 compensation each as promised by the department of mineral resources. The workers who survived the collapse were promised R50 000 each, but have only been paid R10 000 so far.

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