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Austrian Mine Disaster: Rio Tinto Blamed

12.08.2005

Management at Austria's disaster-struck Lassing mine sent ten workers to their deaths for purely economic reasons.

That is the main accusation in a highly critical report released today by the Austrian metal, mining and energy union GMBE.

Lassing is run by Talc de Luzenac, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto, the world's biggest mining corporation. In Austria's worst mining accident since the war, ten miners died at Lassing this July when the roof of the talc mine collapsed. They were sent in after another miner, Georg Hainzl, had already been buried by the collapse. Ten days later, Hainzl was brought out alive.

"Manifestly, neither the management nor the mines authority nor the other emergency services had any concept," the report concludes. "That is the only possible explanation for the chaotic and amateurish organisation during this emergency. The failure to involve those present who had practical knowledge (the miners), including the works council chairman (also a miner), who certainly should have been involved in the response to the disaster, demonstrates an incomprehensible hierarchical arrogance on the part of the responsible specialists both within the firm and in the authorities."

The report was prepared for GMBE President Rudolf Nürnberger by Richard Hollerer, the union's secretary in the Lassing area. It includes a chronological account of the disaster from 17 July onwards. Part of the chronology:

[quote]

Although the road through Lassing had been closed from 13.30 because of subsidence, and the stream there had already disappeared underground at around 11.30, miners who had been ordered back to the site were kept working all afternoon inside the mine in order to secure it, and it was there that, at approximately 22.00, they were tragically buried.
At around 13.00, the responsible mines inspector had arrived at the site and had toured the mine with company managers (and commercial staff).
Further subsidence in the area of the mine (above ground) was, incomprehensibly enough, also not taken seriously. As early as 11.50, local residents had reported that the house of the Maier family was subsiding. The company management produced photographic documentation of the evolution of this collapse.
Private callers who had, over the previous few days, drawn attention to the danger posed by blasting were clearly not taken seriously either.
It should also be noted at this point that it had been repeatedly stated over the past few years that there was no intention of mining too far under the stream, as the ground conditions were not stable there. It was all, the statements said, too heavily overlaid with marshland.
The gentlemen responsible realised the seriousness of the situation much too late - namely, at about 22.00, when massive quantities of mud and water trapped the other 10 miners who were inside the mine.
The chaos that reigned in the following hours, while organising the rescue work, shows quite clearly that the capacities both of the mine management and of the mines inspectorate were hopelessly overstretched. Nobody was capable of coordinating the deployment of the rescue squads.
The chairman of the works council, who is also a miner, the other miners and the recently retired head supervisor were not brought into the crisis team or the deployment leadership team. Repeated appeals did nothing to change this attitude.
The deployment team held hours of discussions and meetings without reaching any concrete conclusions - this in the presence of journalists.
Offers of assistance from volunteers and teams of experts in Germany, Hungary, Italy, the USA and Austria were stubbornly refused.
The unavoidable impression is that the intention, even in this catastrophic situation, was to find a company-internal solution.
[end of quote]

The chronology goes on to criticise the unpreparedness of the emergency services, the state authorities and the mines inspectorate. It also says that the drilling of a rescue shaft was decided much too late, and was further delayed by the use of old, inadequate equipment. It was through the rescue shaft that Georg Hainzl was finally brought out alive, after ten days underground.

"Incidentally," the report says,"it was clear from the start that this was the only possible way of rescuing him." The implications of this are made clear a little later in the report: "The claims now being constantly made, that it was necessary to send in the miners in order to rescue Brother Hainzl, are demonstrably incorrect (by means of available, verifiable safety plans). Rather, it is clear that they were reinforcing the mine so that the further extraction of talc would not be made impossible by the further penetration of mud!"

The report also notes that no register of mine rescue experts and equipment was available, and describes this as an "unforgivable error both by the company and by the mining authority."

And it says that previous safety incidents at the mine were hushed up. "Attempts were made, through all kinds of 'tricks', to push down the mine's accident rate (provable). Injuries suffered by miners while underground were hushed up by giving them home leave or assigning them to jobs above ground."

[All quotes above are translations from the German]

Meanwhile, an investigation by the mines inspectorate supports allegations that tunnels had been dug beyond the area covered by Talc de Luzenac's permits at Lassing. The firm continues to deny this. But mines minister Hannes Farnleitner, himself under growing criticism for his conduct during the disaster, told parliament that he had passed files to the public prosecutor for investigation.

RIO TINTO RESPONDS

Asked by ICEM UPDATE today to comment on the allegations, Rio Tinto’s global headquarters in London was unaware of them in detail. After the ICEM faxed through the Austrian documents, Rio Tinto provided the following response, which we reproduce in full:

[quote]

The circumstances surrounding the tragic disaster at Lassing are the subject of a detailed independent investigation being conducted by the Austrian authorities. Full cooperation is being extended by Naintsch Mineralwerke, a subsidiary of Talc de Luzenac, itself part of Rio Tinto. In these circumstances, the only comment Rio Tinto would make to the ICEM statement is to assert that:

1) The only concerns of the authorities and of Naintsch Mineralwerke and Rio Tinto since the earliest inundation at noon on July 17 have been for the rescue of Georg Hainzl, the trapped miner, the safety of his colleagues, including those who tragically died, and the subsequent welfare of their families.

2) The Austrian authorities lay down extensaive procedures relating to mine safety which ensure significant involvement of employees and the State Authorities in the safety of miners. Mine safety is of foremost concern to the company, its employees and the Authorities. The Lassing mine had over recent years an exemplary safety record due to their concerted effort and we are not aware of any safety incidents which have not been properly reported.

In our understanding, this has never been a union-company point of difference and we would wish to pay tribute to the Austrian employees for their efforts in such difficult circumstances.

[end of quote]

ICEM UPDATE Editor’s note: The statements to which Rio Tinto is responding here are, of course, by the Austrian miners’ union and the Austrian mining inspectorate, rather than by the ICEM.

LUST FOR PROFIT?

Rudolf Nürnberger, the GMBE's President, is also a member of the Austrian parliament. The responsibility for the Lassing disaster must rest "at the top," Nürnberger told parliament yesterday - notably with Rio Tinto, the minister and the head of the mining authority. On the reports that the accident was caused by illegal mining, he said that, if proved, this would mean that the miners' deaths were in fact caused by "the lust for profit".

Reminding Austria's lawmakers of "the pressure that can be exerted on workers by the threat that their jobs will be lost," Nürnberger insisted that "for those who have a close knowledge of the ultimate owner, namely Rio Tinto, all this will not seem unusual." He went on to cite Rio Tinto - Tainted Titan, the "stakeholders' report" produced jointly by the 20-million-strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) and a number of human rights and environmental organisations.

"The ICEM," Nürnberger told parliament, "is the worldwide federation in which chemical unions, miners unions ... and therefore also the union that I represent are united. On the occasion of Rio Tinto's last annual general meeting, we produced a very comprehensive report and, Minister, if you don't want to bother going on to the Internet, I am very willing to place this Rio Tinto report at your disposal."

Others can access it on this site - see below.

As Nürnberger told the minister, Rio Tinto - Tainted Titan gives a detailed worldwide critique of Rio Tinto's "approach to human rights, particularly the rights of workers and local populations, rights concerning natural resources ... environmental protection regulations, and its very lax approach to occupational health and safety."

Noting that "last year, Rio Tinto earned 1.2 billion US dollars clear profit on a turnover of 9.2 billion", Nürnberger told a cheering parliament that, once responsibilities had been clarified, Rio Tinto should be made to pay back "every schilling and groschen" of the costs caused by the Lassing disaster.

"We fully support our Austrian colleagues' demands," commented ICEM General Secretary Vic Thorpe. "It is becoming clear that there was no proper forward planning for dealing with an accident at Lassing. It also appears that safety precautions were inadequate and that safety incidents were hushed up. All this puts Rio Tinto and the authorities in clear breach of their obligations under international mining safety standards, as set out in Convention 176 of the UN’s International Labour Organisation.

"If further tragedies of this kind are to be avoided," Thorpe emphasised, "it is essential that representative trade unions be fully involved in safety planning and implementation at all Rio Tinto mines worldwide. We call upon the company to abandon its hostility to trade unions and to work with us to ensure that the world's biggest mining company becomes the world's safest."