Pike River: Whittall was a 'dodgy git' - former manager

By Laura Mills of the Greymouth Star

Former Pike River Coal General manager Doug White. Photo / pool
Former Pike River Coal General manager Doug White. Photo / pool

Former Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall was a "dodgy git'' and a "megalomaniac'' who blamed others for his mistakes, the Royal Commission of Inquiry was told today.

Sometimes tearful, general manager mines Doug White painted a picture of terse management relationships in the lead-up to the November 2010 mining disaster that claimed 29 lives.

He said Mr Whittall, now his former boss, was "still a dodgy git'' in a personal email three days before the underground explosion.

In an interview afterwards with police, Mr White also called him "overbearing, quite dictatorial, megalomaniac''.

"I can't recall anyone actually standing up to him. He would normally get what he wanted,'' Mr White said.

He also said his former boss "blames everyone else (he tells lies too)'' for stuff-ups, including purchasing what was arguably the wrong mining machinery.

He confirmed that Mr Whittall gave safety manager Neville Rockhouse an "unnecessary'' public dressing down.

"There were certainly jibes on a number of occasions,'' and an "air'' at management meetings whenever Mr Whittall was present.

Numerous witnesses have said they thought things had improved throughout the mine under Mr White's management.

However, by September 2010 - two months before the mine exploded - Mr White himself was on the verge of leaving.

Many systems had already been set up when he arrived at Pike River 10 months before the disaster, and he had wrongly assumed they were all working.

Until late October, despite his position, only four staff reported directly to him, the rest to Mr Whittall.

Mr Whittall "micro-managed'' everything, even questioning why a jersey and socks were being purchased.

Over time, Mr White began to feel "unnecessary'', but he told himself to "harden up'', spoke to his family about it and made the decision to stay.

"I'm not saying I regret that, I believe I made it for all the right reasons.''

He changed his mind in November after being told off for giving visiting stockbrokers information that resulted in a share price fall for the company.

Asked today about the demands on his time in the months leading up to the disaster, he replied: "Where would you like me to start?''

"Believe you me, I was kept busy. I was underground up to three times a week, constantly engaging with employees, extolling safe work.''

Mr White has many years' experience running mines, and was a former senior mines inspector in Queensland.

"You knew full well what was expected in a well-run, well-managed, safe mine,'' Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union lawyer Nigel Hampton QC said.

Mr White said when he turned up at Pike River in January 2010 the mine "needed a cuddle''.

"Initially I had concerns over ventilation, and the state of ventilation devices and the state of stone dusting."

He said he acted to improve those areas. The West Coast "No.8 wire, she'll be right'' attitude alarmed him.

Mr White accepted that serious incidents had not been drawn to his attention.

"Everyone knew what the system was supposed to be,'' he said, but it was not followed on a number of occasions.

Mr White was not among those charged by the Department of Labour, and his lawyer said today that he did not think the police had any evidence to charge him either.

However, for the second day before the Royal Commission, he repeatedly stopped Mr White from answering questions to avoid self-incrimination.

The hearing continues.

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