Appin turmoil claims coal mine’s statutory manager

Move along: South32 director Keith Rumble (left) and CEO Graham Kerr at the company's AGM last month.
Move along: South32 director Keith Rumble (left) and CEO Graham Kerr at the company's AGM last month. .

The turmoil at South32’s Appin mine is continuing with the statutory mine manager becoming the latest to move on.

Mal Waterfall, described by a colleague as “highly respected throughout the industry”, is gone from his position as the statutory mine engineering manager, a job required by law.

His departure has not been explained.

He has been replaced by Mick Lerch, who was the mine manager at New Zealand’s Pike River coal mine until a few months before it exploded in 2010. 

South32 would be “working with Mal Waterfall to explore other opportunities in the Appin business,” Appin general manager Mick Nucifora told staff via email.

“I thank Mal for his commitment to the Mine Engineering Manager role and the Appin Lead Team, particularly through the Prohibition Notice period.”

Mr Lerch already had 28 years’ experience in the industry by the time he started at Pike River in 2009. Before that he had worked at Peabody’s Wambo underground mine in the Hunter Valley.

The Pike River Royal Commission did not name Mr Lerch in any adverse findings.

Appin is known as the gassiest mine in the Southern Hemisphere and experienced hands are concerned the clean-out of long-term senior personnel there is robbing the operation of vital expertise.

Two other changes have also been made this week, with the elevation of Matt Blackham and Mark Borghero to the management group. Meanwhile, voluntary redundancies have been offered to operators, deputies and tradespeople.

After reporting on the heavy turnover of experienced senior staff at Appin, the Mercury has been contacted by several long-time miners who are seriously concerned about the direction of the operation. None would be named, fearing they would be sacked.

One miner with more than 20 years’ experience said he thought South32 was trying to replace much of the workforce with Queensland contractors Redpath. 

“My view, and also the view of many others, is that we are being set-up to appear to be uneconomical to run,” he said.

“The speed at which we have got back into production seems to suggest the company may be planning for a change to the way the colliery is run into the future.”

South32 declined to comment on Mr Waterfall’s departure.

A company spokesman said the changes were designed to “reset the culture” and boost productivity at the mine.

“We have made several changes at Illawarra Metallurgical Coal, which are necessary to ensure the operation is set up for long-term success,” he said.

“The changes are expected to help reset the culture and deliver a sustainable step change in productivity having re-established minimum performance criteria.

“They will reinforce accountabilities, build capability and increase our focus on taking a more disciplined approach to performance expectations in regards to safety, productivity and cost.”

“Our focus continues to be on maintaining safe and stable operations and we will not compromise on the processes, systems, people and safety controls required to do so.”

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