The Prime Minister's first instinct over the recovery of the 29 men killed in the Pike River mine tragedy was the right one. This led him only last month to reiterate to the families of the victims that the Government was unlikely to fund the recovery of whatever might remain of their bodies because its experts said this was too dangerous and expensive. Now, however, John Key has changed his mind. Shortly before Christmas, he wrote to Solid Energy, the mine owner, saying a new expert panel would be established to advise the Government on the feasibility of body recovery. That is simply a sop to the families who would have been better served by realism.
Like all New Zealanders, Mr Key feels the sadness of the families. It is hard to accept that the remains of their loved ones will, very likely, never be recovered. This has led them to vigorously oppose the verdict of the Government's experts. The families' efforts have included locating three international experts who say the recovery of the bodies is possible. They have also included badgering the Prime Minister. According to Bernie Monk, a spokesman for the families: "I told him 'you and I are going to be arguing about this for the next 10 years. We aren't going away'."
A panel of mining experts from diverse backgrounds, including from Solid Energy, the Mines Rescue Trust, the Pike families and the Government's High Hazards Unit, will now be assembled to try to reach a consensus on whether recovery is possible, plus its risks and costs. The Government will pay the cost of the return to New Zealand of the families' experts. It has also pledged to pay all out-of-pocket costs to explore the mine's 2.3km tunnel, where some bodies might remain, if a viable plan that satisfied the High Hazards Unit was developed.
That represents a significant cost to the taxpayer which could become even more substantial. The latter scenario is unlikely, however. Elaborate plans so far hatched to recover the bodies have been largely impractical. There is little to suggest that anything more than a token gesture is feasible. One of the families' experts, a former British principal mines inspector, Bob Stevenson, has conceded that high volumes of explosive methane gas were trapped underground. Mines had been re-entered many times in Britain, he said, but none had operated under such "appalling"' standards as Pike River.
Solid Energy has said the remains will be recovered only as part of future commercial mining operations and if it was "safe, technically feasible and financially credible to do so". That reasonable approach was agreed to last year by the Government. There is no good reason for the Prime Minister to have suddenly changed tack.
Mr Key's December 20 letter noted that he was "very keen for the families to have closure one way or another as soon as reasonably possible". In all likelihood, however, he is simply dragging out that process. Solid Energy's message when it took over the mine gave the families something approaching certainty. They were told there was only a 5 to 10 per cent chance of recovery, a view confirmed by two Australian mining experts.
That meant, effectively, that the remains of the Pike River men would share the fate of many other victims of mine explosions, including that of the two of those killed in the 1967 Strongman tragedy. Now, however, the Prime Minister has rekindled the families' hopes. All that will achieve is a delay in the acceptance of reality.