The Government and Solid Energy have entered into agreement over the recovery of bodies from the Pike River mine to ensure the focus remains on bringing home the remains of the 29 miners killed in the mining tragedy in 2010.
Announcing this evening that it had completed due diligence in the purchase of Pike River Coal's assets, the state-owned company said it could take years to recover the bodies and it would be done only if it was safe and "financially credible'' to do so.
Families of the 29 Pike River mine victims were left upset, and in some cases "heartbroken'', after being told tonight by Solid Energy that any recovery of the workers' remains could take several years, if it happens at all.
The families were given the view of Solid Energy on the prospects of recovery of remains, and families spokesman Bernie Monk said it felt in many ways like the situation had not moved forward from when the mine exploded in November 2010.
"We went in with some hope, but we got a reality check,'' said Mr Monk, whose son Michael, 23, died in the mine.
"We always thought that we are not going to get everyone out. But now everyone is on the same playing field that we may not get anyone out.''
Solid Energy said any recovery would be done through its commercial mining operations, effectively ruling out any dedicated recovery operation, something the Pike River families had been hoping for.
Solid Energy's chief executive Don Elder said that if the sale went ahead, it would be committed to recovering the men's bodies. It had entered into an agreement with the Government that set out the roles each would play.
The announcement in March that the state-owned company was buying the mine was welcomed by the West Coast community as a "giant step" towards retrieving the bodies of the miners, trapped underground since the explosion in November 2010.
Solid Energy held a meeting with the Pike River families in Greymouth this evening to update them.
Dr Elder said that if there was one thing that had been confirmed by the tragedy, it was that the West Coast geology and mining conditions were among the hardest in the world.
"We looked at all reasonable options, and we're committed to taking all reasonable steps to bring the men home to their families. But we will not risk further tragedy in doing so. We know this is not the news some of the family members were hoping for, but it is the right answer and the only realistic answer.''
The Government will review any future decisions over the recovery of the bodies and may set up a trust to oversee implementation of any body recovery activities.
It also said it remained committed to financially assisting a safe and credible body recovery plan, and would consider what level of funding it would contribute when a plan was developed.
"After extensive work by our own technical team, including advice and review by international experts, Solid Energy has concluded that the only safe, feasible and credible option for recovering the men's bodies will be as part of a future commercial mining operation," Elder said.
"This will take some years to develop and implement. We have reflected this in an agreement with the Government, which shares this conclusion.
"This agreement commits Solid Energy to pursuing all reasonable steps to recover the men's bodies as part of any commercial mining operations at Pike River,'' Dr Elder said.
Minister of Energy and Resources Phil Heatley said the Government's expectations on body recovery had not changed.
"The Government is committed to the recovery of the bodies, as long as it means no further risk to human life,'' he said.
- APNZBy Lucy Bennett @LucyBennettAPNZ Email Lucy, Jarrod Booker Email Jarrod