Fire and emergencies in coal mines, handling and power generation facilities as proven with the fires in February 2014 at the Yallourn and Morwell open cut mines can have a devastating effect on the health and wellbeing of residents close to the mines. This includes the potential for energy production and economic impact to the industry and wider community.
These fires have a level of complexity that is unique. The conditions can be demanding on people and equipment. For firefighters the potential for harm to health and the physical demands of the environment cannot be overlooked. As an organisation we need to ensure the methods are effective, efficient and safe as possible. The effectiveness can be enhanced with improvements in technology, equipment and extinguishing agents. Efficiency can be gained in the strategies and tactics, training, incident and resource management, co-ordination and interoperability. Improvement in effectiveness and efficiency of operations can also improve safety. As with all activities safety has to be our priority, this can include improvements in health checks and monitoring, risk assessment, training personal protective equipment and clothing.
There is a need to plan and prepare for both current challenges as well as possible change in the mining and power generation industry; this could include “clean coal” and new technology such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), coal to oil, coal to gas and other processes such as refined coal (coal drying) and coal-water slurry fuel. Additionally as mines are rehabilitated and closed, these sites may fall back to into government hand or private ownership. These sites may still provide a risk to fire involving coal as a legacy of the previous use.
Within Australia the Latrobe Valley is the only location that large scale mining of brown coal occurs. Other brown coal mines in Victoria do exist in Bacchus Marsh and Anglesea; however they are relatively small scale operation. The Anglesea mine has recently been closed and the coal mined in Bacchus Marsh is used primarily as a product for organic fertiliser, soil conditioner and top soil in a similar way to the small lignite mines found in New Zealand’s Otago and Southland Regions.
Emergency Services Foundation (ESF) scholarship
The Emergency Services Foundation (ESF) scholarship in Victoria has given me the opportunity to visit a number of locations to investigate best practices for emergency response to brown coal (lignite) mining and combustible dust fires and incidents in open cut coal mines, power generation and clean coal energy facilities.
The four (4) main objectives of the study tour were to investigate the following:
- Best practices for the prevention, detection and suppression of Brown Coal (lignite) open cut coal mine fires.
- Combustible dust fires and explosion prevention and suppression in coal handling and power generation facilities.
- Health and air quality monitoring for large scale fires in coal facilities.
- Best practices for the prevention, detection and suppression of potential fires in emerging “Clean Coal” technology facilities.
Choice of study locations
Internationally a large number of countries such as China, Germany, USA, Poland, Turkey, India, and the Czech Republic have large scale brown coal surface mining.
Lignite coal mining in the area in the vicinity of North Dakota was chosen over other locations for a number of reasons, this included access to facilities and subject matter experts, the technology, equipment and procedures currently being used and the type of infrastructure in place. Additionally sub-bituminous coal mines in Montana and Wyoming were also visited to gain an understanding of emergency response in sub-bituminous coal mining operations.
I was able to visit five coal mines and six power stations located in, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota in the United States and Saskatoon, Canada, as well as a coal gasification plant in North Dakota. I also visited state mine reclamation authorities in North Dakota and Pennsylvania including a number of historic mine sites in North Dakota and the town of Centralia, PA that has had an underground coal mine burning since 1962. I met with members from several volunteer; part paid or paid fire departments that respond to incidents in either the coal, power or oil industry within each state and province visited.
Among the other highlights of the time spent included attending a quarterly meeting hosted by the North Dakota Lignite Association that is a representative body for the coal industry. At that meeting I meet with three state government commissioners, government mining regulatory officials, managers and representatives from the major mining and power generation facilities within the state of North Dakota. I also visited the US Forest Service office in Bismarck, ND and a number of Fire Departments that respond directly to or support emergency response to the oil, mining and power industry as well as the 81st Civil Support Team. They are a military team of specialist personal that are part of, or seconded to the states National Guard that is able to deploy rapidly to assist a local incident commanders in determining the nature and extent of and chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack or incident; providing expert technical advice on WMD/NBC, response operations; and help identify and support the arrival of follow-on state and federal military response assets.
I also had meetings with representatives of water misting and dust suppression equipment companies near Chicago, Illinois (Dust Control Technology) and Buffalo New York (Buffalo Turbine).
The opportunity also presented itself to visit a protest site at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation for the Dakota Access Pipeline or Bakken pipeline (oil pipeline) and in Colstrip MT, I met with one of the co-founders of a community based coal industry support group (Colstrip United), this provided a view of community groups that either in some way, support or oppose the oil or coal industry.
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