Lawlessness at Gupta mines was behind deadly tragedy

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

This article first appeared in Groundup.

A methane gas explosion ripped through the Gloria Coal Mine on 4 February, trapping 22 men underground. They were allegedly trying to steal cable. Rescue efforts have been hampered by the continued presence of the deadly gas. Five men died trying an unofficial rescue attempt. The bodies of seven of the 22 have been found, but cannot yet be brought to the surface. One person was rescued alive.

Gloria mine is part of Tegeta, the formerly Gupta-owned group that is now in business rescue. More than 1,000 workers stopped getting paid in October after the group ran out of cash. Business rescue practitioners are trying to sell the mines – including Optimum and Koornfontein coal operations – to new buyers.

Because mining operations were suspended, armed men have been overwhelming security and stealing cable relatively unbothered. This appears to have been what happened at Gloria mine, but it went terribly wrong.

Workers and family members of the men have been holding vigil at the mine through the week, waiting for news of their loved ones and the prospect of the mine returning to work. Their wait has so far been in vain.

We now have a better picture of the sequence of events leading up to the tragedy. It is likely that all of the 22 people trapped underground were killed in the explosion. The mine cannot reopen until their bodies have been recovered (or, improbably, some are rescued alive). There are also reports that other mines in the area have been targeted by the same men, including Optimum Coal Mine, Blinkpan, and the nearby railway siding.

At Gloria mine, the men made a fatal mistake by cutting the overhead electricity cables which powered giant fans that flushed out methane gas from the mine. Poisonous methane gas leeches from the underground coal and must be ventilated to allow mining to occur. When the fans stopped blowing, all it took was a spark to ignite an explosion that ripped through kilometres of underground tunnels.

On a tour of the mine last week, mine management highlighted the scale of the theft and vandalism. Most of those involved are believed to be Lesotho nationals living in a nearby informal settlement.

“They are highly organised and they have come in gangs numbering 40 or 60, and they are armed. So they can easily overwhelm our unarmed security, and even the police,” says Mike Elliott, the business rescue practitioner for the mine. “They tend to come at night when it is dark, so they can more easily infiltrate the mine.”

As far as we can tell this is what happened: Two weeks ago the men came to the mine after dark, chased away security, and stripped copper from two transformers used to power the giant fans that blow fresh air into the underground mine. This was a fatal mistake.

The men made their way down the 127-metre shaft by rope, where they set about stripping copper underground. They were equipped with the tools needed for the job, including acetylene torches, which may have sparked the explosion. But even lighting a cigarette or attempting to cook a meal may have caused it.

There are safety bunkers underground with food, water and a limited supply of oxygen where miners can seek refuge in the event of an accident or explosion, but it is doubtful any of the men survived the explosion.

Elliott estimates they might have made off with R500,000 worth of scrap metal, but inflicted at least R50-million worth of damage.

“We received a call from the local ward councillor last Tuesday saying 22 of their community men were missing and suspected there had been some kind of event,” says Elliott. This was the first indication that something had gone horribly wrong. Mine managers then noticed that the blast doors on the fans pumping air underground had been blown off – a telltale sign of an underground explosion.

Within hours, a group of about 40 members of the same community arrived, pushing aside police and mine security and insisted on going down the shaft to rescue their friends and family members. Guard dogs were brought to the mine to beef up security, but were withdrawn when people started shooting at them.

“They insisted on going down despite our warnings that it was unsafe due to the presence of poisonous gas,” says Elliott. Some hours later, several members of the unofficial rescue group emerged from the mine and reported feeling dizzy.

“We told them rescue teams cannot enter the mine due to the poisonous gases, as we have to follow safety protocols,” says Elliot. It’s not clear exactly how many people then decided to go down again, but it was in the region of 20. Some of them later emerged. One person was put into an ambulance and reported dead. But he survived and later left hospital, according to Elliott.

But men were still missing from the unofficial rescue group. Soon afterwards, the official rescue team went underground and found their bodies, roughly 750 metres from the shaft. They were brought to the surface. In total, five of the unofficial rescue team died.

A temporary fan and generator to power it have been installed at the mine. It will take a few more days to flush the methane gas from the tunnels before rescue teams can safely return.

Elliott says the men have every imaginable piece of equipment to strip the copper. “They’re organised and they arrive in a bunch. If they see there is going to be resistance, they pick up the phone and call back-up. Then you’re dealing with 40, 60 or 80 people. Security alert the police, but even they are outnumbered.”

The men have different ways of off-loading the stolen metal. They sometimes steal cable and leave it on the mine until it is safe to remove it. They then pick up the cable and deliver it to a location where it can be collected by scrap metal dealers. These transactions are unregistered, and in violation of the Second Hand Goods Act which requires dealers to maintain detailed registers of clients and to report suspicious or stolen goods.

It’s not just copper that people are after. The headgear from the Gloria mine shaft is about to fall over because the steel legs have been cut. The main fans have also been cut up and sold as scrap metal.

On a visit to the mine last Friday, Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Mineral Resources, said the solution to mine theft was tighter security. He pointed the finger at mine management and insisted “there is no security” at the mine.

“Thieves have no formula,” he said. “They destroy and anybody who will run the mine will have to reconstruct it. That destroys opportunity for many workers into the future. It’s important for us to be quite serious about illegal mining and cable theft in the industry, otherwise the industry is going to go to the dogs.”

The bodies of the missing men have to be brought to the surface before mining operations can recommence. In the meantime, the mine is shut. “It’s a criminal activity what they were doing but now human beings have died. You deal with that, to create space to deal with the rescue of Optimum mines,” said Mantashe.

Mantashe highlighted another methane gas tragedy in 1986 that killed 177 workers and injured 235 more at Kinross Gold Mine due to methane gas that was ignited by an acetylene tank.

Sipho Dlamini, one of the workers at Gloria Mine, said he was surprised that the minister emphasised the people trapped underground, but did not address the plight of workers who have gone unpaid for months.

Mantashe said the tragedy could have been avoided had the rescue practitioners made more haste in completing their work and selling the former Gupta assets. But this was disputed by Elliott. He said the sale of Gloria has been interdicted by the courts, though lawyers from the practitioners are attempting to overturn this.

Police have not yet released the names of the dead men.

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.