New expose of Pike River disaster talks of failures at every level

By Andrew Laxon

The tragedy three years ago could well have been prevented. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The tragedy three years ago could well have been prevented. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Pike River coal mine should have been shut down well before the devastating explosion which killed 29 men three years ago, says the author of a new book on the tragedy.

Department of Labour inspectors could have forced the mine to close solely because it had no alternative escape route if the access tunnel was blocked, said Rebecca Macfie, author of Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 men died.

"It wasn't a lack of regulation that stopped the mine being closed down before it blew up," she told the Weekend Herald. "Pike was in breach of the law in that it didn't have a proper second egress. It could have and should have been handed prohibition notices for the multiple times it did not notify the Department of Labour of gas outages, ignitions and so on.

"What you didn't have was a regulator with the authority and resources to do it."

Tragedy at Pike River Mine - which was launched yesterday in Greymouth ahead of the third anniversary of the disaster next week - paints a grim picture of failure at every level in the supposedly state-of-the-art West Coast coal mine.

Drawing on more than 100 interviews, it supports the conclusions of last year's royal commission report, which blamed the board and management of Pike River Coal for repeatedly cutting corners on safety in the interests of profit and Labour Department inspectors for failing to take action.

Macfie, who covered the disaster on November 19, 2010, and the commission hearings for the Listener, writes in the book that Pike River Coal failed to carry out a proper geological inspection of the site, so it had little idea of the hazards and the exact position of the coal.

As a result, the access tunnel took twice as long to complete and cost twice as much as expected, so the company was constantly running behind its over-optimistic targets and asking investors for more money.

It responded by cutting costs and ignoring many safety features, which could have saved lives but would have affected coal production and profitability. No second tunnel was built and the only alternative exit was an unusable ladder up a partially collapsed ventilation shaft. The only ventilation fan was inside the mine, instead of at the surface, and the methane gas sensors were either not working properly or not connected to the control room.

Rebecca Macfie says the managers didn't listen when workers repeatedly told them the mine was unsafe and their equipment was useless. Photo / David White
Rebecca Macfie says the managers didn't listen when workers repeatedly told them the mine was unsafe and their equipment was useless. Photo / David White

In the 48 days before the disaster, workers reported 21 methane readings at explosive levels but work continued regardless, as the increasingly desperate company offered workers bonuses for production targets that would keep lenders and creditors at bay.

Macfie said she still felt shocked that a disaster like this could occur in New Zealand today. As the mother of a 19-year-old son, she pictured herself in the shoes of the mothers of the lost miners and felt angry and ashamed this had happened in her country - an impulse which ultimately drove her to write a book explaining the causes of the tragedy for a general audience.

She said one of the biggest lessons was that the managers didn't listen when their workers told them repeatedly that the mine was unsafe and their equipment was useless.

"It's easy to go away and rewrite regulations but what's more challenging, and I think probably more important, is that boards and managers need to have all their senses open.

"There's an arrogance about management that I think is revealed in this story that is a lesson for everybody. In many ways Pike isn't that different from plenty of other organisations."

Macfie said she believed Pike's founding company and major shareholder New Zealand Oil & Gas made a mistake in refusing to contribute to the $3.41 million in reparations to miners' families ordered by Judge Jane Farish at Pike River Coal's sentencing in May.

Although the company had already made payments beyond its legal obligations, the refusal ignored NZOG's pivotal role in setting up the mine and was a "drop in the bucket" for a company with $160 million in the bank.

"I'm reluctant to say they had a moral obligation but if they had any insight into how embedded their company is in the Pike story, they might have come to a different decision."

Pike's former chief executive Peter Whittall faces 12 charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. His trial in Wellington is expected to be held early next year.

- NZ Herald

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