Gerard Morris: Lessons from mine inquiry need to be learned

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Gerard Morris, West Coaster and former coal mining journalist, looks at issues of the Pike River recovery expected to come under scrutiny.

Mining families should have been allowed to see much earlier the evidence of the first blast's ferocity. Photo / Supplied
Mining families should have been allowed to see much earlier the evidence of the first blast's ferocity. Photo / Supplied

The Royal Commission into the Pike River mining tragedy which opens a preliminary hearing in Greymouth today will delve into the reasons behind the tragic explosion which killed 29 men at the Pike River mine near Greymouth on November 19 last year.

What it will also likely uncover are the related tragedies of the disrespectful manner the authorities, the mining company and receiver have treated the victims' families in the four months following the tragedy. Also the fact that no specialist mining expertise or mines rescue recommendations were followed by the police, company and receiver in the prolonged rescue and recovery process.

The authorities in charge of the rescue and recovery operation have run it as a CIB exercise without full regard for the feelings of the families and the local community. Not only did they create false hope in the early stages after the first blast, but they have continued to give the strong impression they are focused on recovering the bodies.

Consider this. The footage showing the ferocity of the first blast on November 19 taken at the mine portal, where the blast ignition point was more than 2km down the drive, was only made public after a New Zealand Herald journalist's inquiry to the Prime Minister on Tuesday, November 23.

Prime Minister John Key had been to the mine the previous day and was visibly shaken when he was shown the footage there and saw first hand the power of the blast. The authorities in charge of the rescue operation had viewed this footage within 12 hours of the first explosion.

On that Tuesday Claire Trevett asked Mr Key: "What did you think of the Pike footage?"

This caused the vital footage to be released to the families almost immediately, after it had been withheld by the authorities for seven briefings over four days.

Mining families like those of the Pike River miners understand coal mining and should have been allowed to make up their own minds about the ferocity of the first blast much earlier by viewing this footage.

Compare this to the Erebus tragedy in 1979 when, within 48 hours, the nation saw for itself the sad sight of the DC10 tail with the proud koru lying on the ice. We were allowed to make our own call on the seriousness of that situation and manage our emotions based on reality.

On the Sunday after the first blast at Pike, we had mine management telling New Zealand live on television that there was a fractured compressed air line part way up the Pike drive and the missing miners could be gathered around this air supply. Pike chief executive Peter Whittal made this statement fully aware of the ferocity of the blast from the portal footage and knowing that oxygen only makes a methane fire worse. He knew the mine was likely to be on fire at that point.

There has been almost three months' delay to the boring of a critical hole at Spaghetti Junction in the mine which will show the extent of the rock fall and roof collapse that happened at that intersection underground as a result of the fourth explosion at the mine on November 29. Experts say this will provide conclusive evidence that it will be near impossible to get past the point safely without a new bypass drive that would take many months to drill and significantly lower the value of the remaining asset the receiver is trying to sell.

Meanwhile, the authorities and the receiver continue to give the families tortuous and cruel hope that the bodies, likely to be on the other side of this rock fall, will be recovered some time soon.

The receiver has said he has set aside $5 million to recover the bodies when the Pike Coal Company was spending this amount each month to put the stone drive into the coal seam over more than two years.

The sidelining of the rescue expertise in the recovery and rescue operation will likely come under extreme scrutiny by the royal commission given that one of the commissioners is a world expert in coal mining safety and methane mines, Queensland's Stewart Bell.

It is widely believed within the local coal industry that the tragedy most relevant to the Pike inquiry is the Moura Disaster in Queensland where 11 lives were lost in 1994. Both Pike and Moura had methane issues.

Australian mines rescue experts arrived at Pike to assist the world-recognised New Zealand Mines Rescue team within 36 hours of the first blast. Their expertise was effectively sidelined by the authorities, reportedly under direction from Wellington.

How could a police team from outside the West Coast and Department of Labour advisers hold superior knowledge and sway over experienced coal mining rescue experts from Australia and New Zealand?

After all, from more than 120 years of methane plagued coal mining in the Paparoa Range prior to the Pike tragedy, there have been around 90 mine deaths in those hills, and only two bodies had been left entombed where they fell.

The Royal Commission will inevitably reveal tragedies within the bigger tragedy of 29 West Coast men killed where they worked. Let's look forward to learning from the lessons that are about to unfold.

- NZ Herald

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