Whittall won't be 'scape goated'

By Sharon Lundy

Peter Whittall. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Peter Whittall. File photo / Mark Mitchell

Former Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall says he is being made a scapegoat after being charged over the deaths of 29 miners in the West Coast mine last year.

Whittall was chief executive of the mine when it was hit by a series of explosions, starting on November 19, which killed the men.

The Labour Department yesterday laid 25 charges in the Greymouth District Court against three parties, alleging health and safety failures.

It refused to identify those involved but this afternoon named them as Whittall, who faces 12 charges, Pike River Coal (in receivership), 10 charges, and VLI Drilling Pty Limited (Valley Longwall), three charges.

Whittall was seen as the face of Pike River Coal, fronting to the families and the media daily looking ever-more exhausted.

The former miner broke down in tears as he told media he had had to tell the families their men were dead.

Whittall today said in a statement through his lawyers he denied all the charges and would fight them.

"Mr Whittall is a coal miner. He comes from a coal mining town and has worked in underground mines all his life,'' the statement said.

"He maintains that he would never do anything to put men who worked with him at risk. And Mr Whittall will fight being scape goated now.''

Whittall is due to finish as chief executive on November 30 and the statement said he had stayed on to help with the department's investigation.

"He is deeply saddened by the Department of Labour's actions and intends to vigorously defend all charges laid against him.''

Whittall, an Australian, joined Pike River Coal in February 2005 as mine manager, responsible for planning and developing the mine from the turning of the first sod. He reported to former general manager Gordon Ward.

In January 2010, he relocated from Greymouth to the Wellington head office, and in October 2010 was appointed chief executive, after Mr Ward left.

In the weeks after the disaster, after fronting the company to the world media, a Facebook page called "Peter Whittall is a hero to all New Zealanders'' was created.

However, during the Royal Commission of Inquiry in Greymouth last August he sat apart from the families, who fired severe criticism at him, and he tearfully apologised to them for the way he broke the news of the second, massive explosion.

Police Superintendent Gary Knowles told the inquiry "Mr Whittall fundamentally owned this mine''.

"He was Pike River.''

THE CHARGES

Peter William Whittall:

Four charges of acquiescing or participating in the failures of Pike River Coal Ltd as an employer; four of acquiescing or participating in the failures of Pike River Coal Limited as a principal; and four offences of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure no action or inaction of his as an employee harmed another person.

These alleged failures relate to methane explosion management, strata management, ventilation management and mitigating the risk and impact of an explosion.

Pike River Coal Limited (in receivership):

Four charges of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees; five of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its contractors, subcontractors and their employees; and one of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of its employees harmed another person.

These alleged failures relate to methane explosion management, strata management, ventilation management, mitigating the risk and impact of an explosion, and health and safety management for contractors, subcontractors and their employees.

VLI Drilling Pty Limited (Valley Longwall):

One charge of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees; one charge of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of contractors, subcontractors and their employees; and one charge of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of its employees harmed another person.

These alleged failures relate to the maintenance and operation of machinery.

- NZ Herald

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