Pike River live: 'General air of despondency' at mine - report

By Hayden Donnell

Join us for latest updates from the Pike River inquiry throughout the day. Former chief executive of the Pike River Coal company Peter Whittall is giving evidence:

Peter Whittall, Pike River chief executive. Photo / file
Peter Whittall, Pike River chief executive. Photo / file

5.13: The inquiry has adjourned for the day and will resume tomorrow morning.

5.12: Mr Whittall responds to reports Indian shareholders declined short term investment in Pike River Coal over concerns about export coal quality. He says that is not the case. But there was a cash problem at the mine due to a host of technical problems that beset the mine's operations, he says. "Delays to production therefore delays to cashflow had an effect on the cash reserves of the company."

5.10: Counsel points to a Royal Commission submission saying Pike River's main shareholder NZ Oil and Gas had lost confidence in both Mr Whittall and former chief executive Gordon Ward. Mr Whittall says he was not aware of any loss of confidence in his abilities and had been congratulated warmly on taking the company's chief executive role in October last year.

5.00: An original BDA report on the Pike River mine plans pointed to doubts about its financial viability. Mr Whittall says he does not recall that statement.

4.56: Many technical problems beset the Pike River mine even before development started in 2005, the BDA report says. Mr Whittall agrees there were many technical challenges with the mine - but says that is the case with any large project.

4.54: Counsel points to reports more focus was being placed on the market than on the mining project. Mr Whittall says presenting to the market and shareholders was necessary for a small company like Pike River Coal. That did not change the focus of the operational staff, he says.

4.53: The report from BDA says a site visit showed a "general air of despondency and resignation" among workers inside the Pike River mine. It says equipment units at the mine were so poor that efforts to get them to work effectively were largely wasted. Mr Whittall says BDA were only on site for a day and his inquiries had not revealed a "low feeling generally" at the mine. It was actually a buoyant and very driven place to work, he says. "They were on site for a day to do this review and they talked to a limited number of people available."

4.49: Mr Whittall is shown a report prepared by consultants BDA in May 2010. It describes a suite of unexpected technical and operational difficulties that hindered the Pike River mine's development. Tunnel costs were 100 per cent over budget and two years late, the collapse of the main ventilation shaft and the financial collapse of a contractor all combined to stop the mine reaching its production levels, it says. Though most of those points are accurate, some need qualification, Mr Whittall says. He says a point saying gas detected in the Hawera Fault forced workers to use flame proof equipment earlier than expected was false.

4.43: There are questions about Mr Whittall's involvement with operations at Pike River mine after he moved from Greymouth to Wellington in January 2010. He says he initially visited the mine every week, then every fortnight. That was accompanied by daily phone calls with the mine, he says.

4.39: There were six people who filled the statutory mine manager role at Pike River between 2008 and 2010. Mr Whittall says the high turnover was frustrating, but other roles - including his own - stayed consistent long term. He says a change of high level leadership would have been more disruptive.
Mr Whittall says none of the departing staff raised mine safety issues with him before they left.

4.37: Counsel asks Mr Whittall if he had primary responsibility for operations at the Pike River mine. Mr Whittall says he was not responsible for all underground operations at the mine, but he oversaw medium and long term planning.

4.32: Mr Whittall is asked whether the company took steps to ensure it had access to people with experience in West Coast underground hydro-mining when he came on board in 2005. He says various people employed by Pike River Coal had extensive experience on the West Coast.

4.21: Royal Commission counsel are now questioning Mr Whittall on his mining experience. He has been reminded the first phase of the inquiry is meant to establish context for the November disaster.

4.18: Mr Whittall is describing the equipment in place at the Pike River mine's control room. He is talking about a photo of two control room workers discussing gas tracking information taken from the mine.

4.12: Mr Whittall says miners were told to report hazards immediately if they posed a potential risk to staff.

4.10: Mr Whittall is going through the health and safety procedures in place at the Pike River mine. Risk assessments were carried out before each action in the mine, whether it was a new activity or a repeated one, he says.

4.03: Underground mining teams could discuss any hazards they encountered at Pike River in regular 'toolbox talks', Mr Whittall says. "Anyone could start a toolbox talk." The company ran a tag system which allowed it to keep track of who was in the mine at any given time, he says. "Each miner's photograph was printed on their tag along with his name."

4.01: Mr Whittall is describing the teams of miners and their shift patterns at the time of a deadly explosion at Pike River on November 19. He says there were three crews on a nine hour roster which were in operation five days a week. Those crews had 20, 23 and 19 members respectively.

3.57: The inquiry has resumed. Royal Commission chair Justice Graham Panckhurst is suggesting proceedings start early and finish late tomorrow so Mr Whittall's testimony can be completed.

3.43: The inquiry adjourns for a 15 minute break.

3.42: Some gas sensors were designed to trip power to the Pike River mine when methane measurements reached a certain level, Mr Whittal says. Other sensors were programmed to start an alarm when methane reached high levels, he says.

3.40: Gas monitors in the mine measured methane, oxygen and carbon monoxide, Mr Whittall says. However not all three gasses were monitored at each location, he says.

3.38: Mr Whittall says reports showed coal in the Pike River mine had a low likelihood of spontaneously combusting. He is now describing gas monitoring at the mine.

3.36: Methane was the predominant gas in the Pike River mine and it flowed freely from cut coal and roadways, Mr Whittall says. Gas was either vented to the surface through a gas riser borehole or exhausted through the mine's main ventilation system, he says.

3.13: Mr Whittall is describing how coal was transported from the Pike River mine by rail.

2.57: Mr Whittall describes a "drift runner", which was used to transport miners into the Pike River mine.
It transports up to 11 miners at a time and features onboard gas monitoring and a fire suppression system. Many of the pieces of equipment being described by Mr Whittall have inbuilt safety features.

2.40: Drilling equipment used in the early stages of the Pike River mine development were unreliable, Mr Whittall says.
Inefficent roadheaders and continuous miners were replaced, he says.
He is now showing a picture of a tunnel drilled by the ABM20 continuous driller settled on by the company.

2.32: Drilling equipment used by Pike River Coal had onboard gas monitoring systems, Mr Whittall says.
On one machine used by the company - the ABM20 continuous miner - the machine shuts down if it detects high levels of methane, he says.

2.25:Mr Whittall says the Pike River mine was expected to produce up to 1.3 million tonnes of saleable coal every year.

He says that was to be achieved using two mining methods. Between 800,000 and 900,000 tonnes of coal was to be extracted by hydro-mining and between 200,000 to 400,000 tonnes by roadway mining, he says.
Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder disputed those targets as unrealistic in an earlier appearance at the inquiry.

2.19: The inquiry has resumed with Mr Whittall continuing to explain mine plans.

1.16pm: The inquiry is adjourned for lunch. It is set to resume after 2pm, with Mr Whittall still in the witness box.

1.06pm: Mr Whittall is pointing out a series of gas monitoring stations and gas sensors on the current Pike River mine plan.
Gas sensors take a sample of gases, while monitors analyse those samples, he says.

12.48: A series of historical plans for the Pike River mine are being shown to the commission.

12.41: Mr Whittall is describing efforts to improve ventilation at the Pike River mine. It was operating in accordance with "statuatory minimum" ventilation standards until more air was forced in by a fan at the end of a borehole into the mine's roadway, he says.

12.31: Pike River was always meant to be a single-entry mine with a ventilation shaft, Mr Whittall says. The mine plans had changed over time but the fundamental design never altered, he says. Counsel at the inquiry have regularly questioned witnesses on the lack of a second exit from the Pike River mine. Department of Labour mine inspector Michael Firmin yesterday said it was his understanding New Zealand mines were required to have two exits.

12.20: It took more than a year to find a safety training manager for the Pike River mine, Mr Whittall says. He eventually recruited Neville Rockhouse in 2006, and he stayed with the company until this year.

12.15: Mr Whittall says he was tunnel manager when drilling started on the Pike River mine in 2006 and had to take on a number of other roles in the company due to short staffing. Recruiting new staff was difficult, as the mine was competing against other outfits in Australia, he says.

12.10: The inquiry has resumed, with Mr Whittall describing staff at Pike River Coal and their respective roles. He was first employed as a mine manager in 2005 and rose to chief executive in October 2010. He says there were 69 miners employed at the mine at the time of the first explosion.

11.40: The inquiry has adjourned for 15 minutes.

For a full account of yesterday's proceedings at the inquiry, read the Listener report from Rebecca Macfie. It reveals how the New Zealand mine inspectorate was under-staffed, under-trained and short of oversight and guidance.

11.35: Mr Whittall says the lower section of the mine's ventilation shaft failed during construction and had to be abandoned.
Sections of rock, some the the size of a "billiard table", were breaking off too fast for contractors McConnell Dowell to secure the drill tunnel, he says.
A more narrow new shaft was drilled to connect the upper section of the ventilation shaft to the mine.

11.22:Mr Whittall has shown a diagram of the Pike River mine tunnel in relation to the coal seam.
The seam slopes upward at the end of the mine tunnel. It has been "dragged" up by the Hawera Fault which cuts through the coal mine, he says.

11.15: Mr Whittall is describing the process contractors McConnell Dowell went through drilling the Pike River tunnel. Portal walls were braced and then reinforced with a spray-on concrete called shotcrete, he says.

11.00: Mr Whittall says the Pike River mine used forced ventilation, where fans pushed air into its portal tunnel. It is normal practice to force ventilation in a tunnelling situation, he says.
He says he relocated from the Pike River Coal mine site to the company's Wellington head office in January 2010.

10.40:Mr Whittall is outlining key aspects of the mine, including its access roads and tunnels. He says the Pike River mine manager was responsible for the underground mine and all facilities except for the coal preparation plant.

10.30:Mr Whittall is describing the setting of the Pike River Coal mine operations and the coal seams they targeted.

10.16: Mr Whittall has been sworn in. He says he had been chief executive of Pike River Coal for six weeks before an explosion hit his mine on November 19.
Mr Whittall says the number of employees at Pike River Coal has reduced from 174 before the explosions to 17 in June.

10.09: Day eight of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River mine tragedy has begun, with Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall giving evidence.

09.50: Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall has arrived at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy at his company's mine.

He expressed confidence after days of allegations about safety mismanagement in the Pike River mine, which is now administered by receivers.

"It'll be nice to get on the stand today."

Whittall prepares for day for evidence:

As New Zealand's worst mining tragedy in nearly a century unfolded, Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall faced cameras and answered hundreds of questions.

He was praised for his forthrightness fronting the operation aimed at rescuing the 29 miners and contractors trapped in his company's explosion-hit mine.

Today Mr Whittall is expected to face questions again - this time in the witness box at the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Pike River tragedy.

It will be the first time he has spoken on the November disaster in months.

His statement comes after seven days of witnesses testimony, some of which has been highly critical of the safety measures in place at the Pike River mine.

Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder was first in the witness box at the Royal Commission last Monday.

He said insufficient planning, chronic financial under-performance, and a lack of knowledge of the "complex" geology on the West Coast had the potential to cause safety risks at Pike River.

Lawyers for Pike River countered with questions on Solid Energy's bid for the Pike River mine - and a suggestion Mr Elder was trying to talk down its price.

Experienced West Coast miner Harry Bell later said he had repeatedly blown the whistle on inadequate safety measures at Pike River.

Ventilation in place while he was working on drilling at the mine in 2007 was inadequate, he said.

He told Pike River's technical manager a proposal to drill through the Hawera Fault with a single drive was "nonsensical, madness", due to gas risks.

Geologist Jane Newman said she was worried about a lack geological investigation at Pike River.

Those concerns came to a head when her husband, Nigel Newman told her he was going over to Pike in July or August 2010.

She told him not to go.

The Department of Labour yesterday completed its testimony, with health and safety manager Michael Firmin speaking about a chronic shortage of mine inspectors.

Mr Whittall reportedly spent Monday preparing his testimony with lawyers. He is expected to be in the witness box after 10am this morning.

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