Editorial: Commission right way to seek answers

Justice Graham Panckhurst will head the inquiry. Photo / POOL
Justice Graham Panckhurst will head the inquiry. Photo / POOL

Reassuringly, the royal commission of inquiry into the Pike River tragedy will have a broad scope. Nothing less would have sufficed for the 29 miners who perished.

While the terms of reference have yet to be completed, the Prime Minister said yesterday they would cover the rescue effort, as well as broader issues related to mining safety.

Reassuringly, also, Justice Graham Panckhurst, a sitting High Court Judge with a wealth of experience, will head the inquiry. Two other commissioners with expertise in mining safety and regulation will join him. To them falls the task of ensuring the correct lessons are learned from Pike River.

The inquiry will cover the cause of the explosion, the cause of loss of life, the way the search and rescue operation was handled, the systems at the mine and the mining industry's regulatory framework.

In effect, this provides two points of focus. The first, of particular interest to the families of the victims, will centre on the causes of the explosion and whether any opportunity to mount a search for the miners was missed immediately after the blast.

In that context, every detail of the mine's methane monitoring systems and the miners' movements will have to be scrutinised to explain what experts have described as a "puzzling" and "surprising" disaster for a mine that has been operating for less than two years.

If, as has been suggested, a split-second gas outburst in the methane-heavy mine overwhelmed the miners before safety alarms could respond, there will be obvious questions about the viability of the Pike River operation.

More broadly, the tragedy raised questions about the stringency of the legislation governing underground mining.

Four years ago, the Pike River Coal chief executive, Peter Whittall, described safety regulations in the industry as "inadequate in some critical areas". Mr Whittall, then the general manager developing Pike River, said "current mining regulations ... are in need of complete review and revision".

His reference point would have been the coalfields of his native Australia. The inquiry will need to establish if New Zealand's regulations are, indeed, laxer than those across the Tasman and, if so, why.

The catalyst for Mr Whittall's comments was a Labour Department review after the death of two coal miners on the West Coast in 2006. Its report raised several areas for possible increased regulation, including inspectors who would be elected by unions to check on the safety of mines where workers raised concerns. The mining companies suggested this would create an environment of confrontation.

Maybe so, but the making of the suggestion said something about shortcomings in the number and resourcing of mine inspectors. The Government must expect to answer questions about why the departmental review had done little but gather dust.

No timetable has been set for the royal commission, other than it will start work as soon as possible. That is how it should be. The inquiry should take as long as necessary.

Undoubtedly, it will be affected by, and informed by, the outcome of investigations by the police, the Labour Department and the coroner. There is also to be an urgent audit of all underground mining in New Zealand by an international mining expert.

But the sweep and gravitas of a royal commission means its findings and recommendations will be the most keenly awaited. Such was certainly the case with Justice Peter Mahon's report on the Erebus disaster, which overwhelmed all earlier reports, including that of the air accident investigator.

The Government's commendable approach to the aftermath of the Pike River tragedy has ensured the same will be true this time.

- NZ Herald

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