Pike River: Former inspector denies he was lax on safety

By Hayden Donnell, Laura Mills of the Greymouth Star

Kevin Poynter, former Health and Safety Inspector, Department of Labour. Photo / supplied
Kevin Poynter, former Health and Safety Inspector, Department of Labour. Photo / supplied

A former mines inspector has angrily rejected suggestions he was lax on safety problems seen in the lead up to a deadly explosion in the Pike River Coal mine.

Former New Zealand mine inspector Kevin Poynter is giving evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster this afternoon.

Pike River Coal counsel Stacey Shortall questioned his concern about the company labelling a ventilation shaft as a second emergency mine exit.

She said Mr Poynter waited months before following up on his concerns about the shaft, despite his repeatedly labeling it an inadequate second egress during the inquiry.

Mr Poynter said he was dealing with an "impossible" workload and personal issues leading up to the Pike River disaster.

"There were other things I was doing all through that period including... dealing with the loss of a grandson.

"So I find it a little bit rich... to suggest that I wasn't following up because I wasn't concerned about it."

Mr Poynter admitted no-one at Pike River Coal had refused him information about the state of the mine's operations.

He had taken accompanied Government minister Kate Wilkinson on a tour of the mine in 2009 without raising safety concerns.

But he said it was the owners' primary responsibility to make sure the mine was safe.

"They have prime responsibility to ensure if people are entering their mine that it's safe to do so.

"It should have been the highest priority to Pike River. They're the ones in charge of the workplace... not the inspectors."

Inspectors should have used enforcement

Earlier, Mr Poynter said enforcement action should have been taken over the lack of an adequate second exit to the Pike River Coal mine.

Under questioning from counsel acting for the families of the Pike River dead, he said miners had nowhere to go in the event of an explosion.

They would not have been able to ascend a shaft deemed the mine's second means of egress as it would have been venting gas, he said.

He said in hindsight it would have been better for inspectors to use enforcement powers to ensure Pike River built an adequate second exit to its mine.

Mr Poynter said his high workload often saw him ask mines to investigate safety failures and make improvements without his oversight.

Inspectors never saw Pike River log books

Mr Poynter yesterday revealed he had not seen a long list of serious safety issues at the Pike River Coal mine.

He told the inquiry he had carried out seven underground mining inspections from 2008, gaining only a "snapshot''. In 2009, he carried out only one inspection.

Royal Commission lawyer James Wilding revealed methane levels in the top of the fan shaft had spiked several times, with a cluster in October 2010, a month before the explosion.

This meant methane levels would have been even higher inside the mine itself.

Mr Poynter said he could not give that the urgent attention it needed because the company never told him, even though they should have been notifiable events.

It showed the mine was having issues controlling gas and with ventilation, he said.
Documents also suggest Pike River Coal deliberately drew fresh air across a gas sensor, and in another case blew compressed air on to one. Mr Poynter learned of this today.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I look at these ... high potential incidents ... it just seems to me that these issues need to be out so we can see them and deal with them.''

He was also unaware the company's own logs reported the ventilation fan had gone off repeatedly in May 2010, machinery cut-off switches were not working (possibly deliberately), and some phones were out of order. Mr Poynter said he had not picked up a phone to check if they were working.

The methane drainage was blowing out because of problems with water traps, and a roadway was a "bloody mess'' with trip hazards.

Just before his last visit, on November 2, the mine had recorded lots of methane around the underground machinery.

Mr Poynter did not know a cigarette lighter had been found in a vehicle, cigarette butts in the mine, and aluminium drink-can tabs. However, it kept happening so random searches were introduced.

On one visit, he did notice a `dead man' lever on a bolting machine had been tied down, disabling a safety device.

Rather than investigate, he requested mine manager Doug White investigate.

"The deputy was suspended and ultimately was dismissed.''

Mr Poynter never inspected the main fan, and only inspected the accident register on one visit.

The Department of Labour's two inspectors reported to different managers, one of whom had no coal background.

"There was no co-ordinated approach'', Mr Poynter said.

Family members present today were clearly distressed as the number of unreported incidents piled up.

- APNZ

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