For centuries coal has been utilized as a source of energy in several applications such as electricity generation and steel production as the more seasoned and common examples. The history of coal mining in Queensland dates back to the 19th century. The human workforce prior to mechanization and technological advancement was at the forefront and certainly considered the backbone of the coal industry. In literal terms, their exposure to coal dust was inevitable hence it was just a matter of how much and for how long coal mine workers were susceptible to inhalable and respirable coal dust. The trajectory of coal mining legislation in Queensland was at every stage solution-driven and as a mitigatory measure to reduce the chronic effects of coal dust on coal mine workers. Eventually, legislation and arbitration caught up and changed the attitudes of responsible authorities to the scourge of coal dust. The article will evaluate documented evidence of the effects of coal dust to mineworkers whilst augmenting with in-depth analysis of the origins of coal balanced with history of legislative laws and coal mining in Queensland.  

In the beginning…

Queensland coal deposits related to geology can be traced back to coal-bearing formations of the Tertiary, Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic and Permian eras. Records show that Mesozoic measures of the Southern and Central districts supplied the bulk of the output in the past owing to geographical advantage although the Permian formations of the Central district harbour Queensland’s vast wealth in coal. Geographically, coal measures extend from the south-eastern corner of the State westwards and also northwards through practically the whole of the eastern portion of Queensland. The main basin of Permian rocks, where the most valuable deposits lie, occurs in Central Queensland on the Bowen, Isaacs, Mackenzie and Dawson Rivers. Elsewhere, coal occurs in small isolated basins at Blair Athol, Mackay, Mt Mulligan and Little River with deposits also in the basal beds of artesian basin sequence at Oxley Creek, Selma and Alpha. Prospecting developments have not exhausted the potential of identifying the total reserves in addition to thousands of square miles in undeveloped outcrops which shows how rich the coal industry is in Queensland moving into the future. 

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

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Coal is formed from ancient plant material accumulated in subsurface environments, which prevents the complete decay of organic matter. The formation occurs by the reduction of plant debris to simple forms such as pure carbon and simple hydrocarbons. Initially, peat is formed which is not a good fuel, owing to poor burning and increased smoke release. Over time with sedimentation due to lithostatic pressure and heat, peat converts to lignite or brown coal. Repeated compaction then converts lignite to anthracite. Anthracite contains the highest amount of pure carbon and heating value among all forms of coal. Bituminous coals are often subdivided on the basis of their heating value as low, medium and high volatile and sub-bituminous coals. In matured coals such anthracite and bituminous types, aromatic rings occupy 80-85% of the coal molecular structure and the remaining is constituted by hydroxyl groups, nitrogen and sulphur compounds.

Coal mining commences

The earliest record of coal production in Queensland was in 1860 from the Ipswich field and types of coal in Queensland classified in order of their rank include:

  1. Semi-anthracite in the Baralaba and Bluff areas 
  2. Low volatile bituminous in the Bowen River, Mackenzie River areas
  3. Medium volatile bituminous in the Burrum, Styx, Mt Mulligan, Blair Athol, Callide and Ipswich areas
  4. High volatile bituminous in the Rosewood-Walloon, Darling Downs and Mulgeldie areas 
  5. Sub-bituminous in the Waterpart Creek, Nagoorin Ubobo areas. 

The grant of titles and regulation of coal mining in Queensland was initially governed by the consolidated Mining Act of 1898 with coal mining provisions related to metalliferous mining. Almost three decades later, 1925 saw the enaction of the special act called The Coal Mining Act of 1925. Several amendments to it culminated into the most significant in 1947 which focused on health and safety provisions. The last known amendment is recorded in 1964. As an interesting aside, the black lung was actually first identified in European coal miners in the 16th Century! Fast forward to 1999, the Coal Mining Safety and Health Act of 1999 was implemented to regulate the operation of coal mines, to protect the safety and health of persons at coal mines and persons who may be affected by coal mining operations, and for other purposes. Most recently the Coal Mining Safety and Health Regulation of 2017 was implemented as subordinate legislation under the Coal Mining Safety and Health Act of 1999. 

The danger of respirable dust

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All mining has the potential to be acutely dangerous, with factors such as collisions, cave-ins, and explosions being very obvious hazards. The impact on health – although as we note having been observed for hundreds of years, has been better understood over the last 50-60 years – but only now is management catching up to the knowledge about the risks. Coal quality and mineral composition as determined by rank affect the mass of respirable coal dust, which determines the development of pneumoconiosis. The methods of mining and dust control may cause variations in the prevalence of pneumoconiosis. In Queensland, open cast coal mining is more predominant than underground mining. Diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, miners’ asthma, legionellosis, silicosis and all-encompassing coal mine dust lung disease are inevitable on overexposure to coal mine dust. 

Achieving acceptable risk of coal dust involves implementing management and operating systems whereas if the risk is deemed unacceptable action should be taken to reduce the risk. Given the evidence of acute, accelerated and chronic pneumoconiosis and other pulmonary conditions clearly coal (and the associated silica) dust is extremely dangerous – it is killing people. There is, therefore, the need to mitigate and if possible complete suppression of fugitive coal dust in coal mining operations. An area of expertise and delivery that Global Road Technology (GRT) focuses on involves tailor-made coal dust suppression using state of the art and well-researched products to control coal dust. Our second follow up article will highlight the products GRT has to offer. 

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REFERENCES 

Bennett, J.G., Dick, J.A., Kaplan, Y.S., Shand, P.A., Shennan, D.H., Thomas, D.J., and Washington, J.S. 1979. The relationship between coal rank and the prevalence of pneumoconiosis. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. 36. 206-210.

Cohen, R.A. 2016. Resurgent coal mine dust lung disease: wave of the future or a relic of the past? Occup Environ Med. 73:11. 715-718. 

Davies, M. 2002. Bibliography of the Mining History of Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. University of Western Australia. National Library of Australia. 

Dunne, E.F. 1950. Brief History of the Coal Mining Industry in Queensland. The Historical Society of Queensland. 313-340.

Finocchiaro, C., Lark, A., Keating, M., Ugoni, A., Abramson, M. 1997. Does occupational exposure to brown coal dust cause a decline in lung function? Occup Environ Med. 54. 642-645. 

Kinnear, P. 2001. The Politics of Coal Dust: Industrial Campaigns for the Regulation of Dust Disease in Australian Coal Mining 1939-49. Labour History. 80. 65-82.

Queensland Government. 2020. Coal Mining Safety and Health Act 1999. 

Queensland Government. 2017. Coal Mining Safety and Health Regulation 2017. 

Rajasekhar, B.R., and Vinu, R. 2018. Feedstock Characterization for Pyrolysis and Gasification. Department of Chemical Engineering and National Centre for Combustion Research and Development. Indian Institute of Technology. 

Rawi, M.R., and Kohli, S. 2018. Thermodynamics and Kinetics of Gasification, Indian Institute of Technology. 

Scott, B., Ranjith, P.G., Choi, S.K., and Manoj, K. 2010. A Review of Existing Opencast Coal Mining Methods within Australia. Journal of Mining Science. 46:3. 280-298.

Whitmore, R.L. 1981. Coal in Queensland: The First Fifty Years. A History of Early Coal Mining in Queensland. University of Queensland Press. St Lucia.