LIVE: Pike River Royal Commission

By Hayden Donnell

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell
5:00pm: The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River disaster has been adjourned until 10am tomorrow.
Cross-examination of Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder will resume then.

4:31pm: Solid Energy coal mines has described its own safety record as "unacceptable", Dr Elder admits.
The company has pleaded guilty to three prosecutions under health and safety legislation during his 11 years as its chief executive, he says.

4:08pm: As the Inquiry resumes Dr Elder says it is highly unlikely the Pike River disaster was the result of a set of rare and isolated coincidences. "That is theoretically possible of course but I don't believe it is an acceptable explanation in any way. Incidents like this with catastrophic consequences shouldn't be able to occur in modern mining."

3:40pm:The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster has been adjourned for 15 minutes.

3:35pm: Dr Elder says difficult geological conditions and prolonged financial pressures could have increased safety risks at the Pike River Coal mine. He says the hydraulic mining method may also have been a risk factor in the lead-up to the deadly explosion at the mine last November.
Unless those three factors were "fully and systematically" addressed, the safety risk level at the mine would have been raised to unacceptable levels, he says.
"A common driver of organisational problems is the pressure felt by groups or individuals in the organisation to achieve specific results when they do not have control over all the factors that contribute to the result."

3:21pm: Dr Elder says he has never had sufficient information to form a view on the safety risks at the Pike River mine.
He is explaining Solid Energy's approach to risk management.

3:12pm: Dr Elder says Pike River Coal had not done enough investigation to be sure of the safety and feasibility of its West Coast mine.
He says the difficult conditions of West Coast coal fields require high quality drill holes at an aerial density of no less than 100m of spacing on average.
That compares to an average borehole spacing of 500m in the feasibility study for the Pike River coal mine, he says.
"The level of geological and coal resource information work presented at feasibility study level, would not have come close to satisfying Solid Energy's requirements."

3:00pm: Risks were elevated at the Pike River mine because its owners did not have a "portfolio" of other mines providing cashflow, Dr Elder says. He points to the example of the Spring Creek underground coal mine.
Solid Energy bought a 100 per cent ownership stake in the West Coast mine in 2002. It then placed the mine on "care and maintenance" while extra drilling and investigation of the mining environment was completed.
That extra work would not have been possible if the company did not have other sources of income, Mr Elder says.
"It is a defining difference between the risk profiles of different companies whether they have other cashflow."

2:45pm: Dr Elder says it is difficult to extract more than 600,000 tonnes of coal a year in West Coast mining conditions. The need to repeatedly move equipment and infrastructure makes West Coast mining less productive, he says. "Overall by world standards (it is) much more difficult to carry out safely and economically."

2:33pm: Dr Elder says setting up any new mine requires extensive geological investigation and accurate knowledge of potential costs. He says setting up a new mine requires a completed feasibility study and cost estimates accurate to within 10 per cent.

2:30pm: Dr Elder says suggestions the Pike River mine should have been open cast are unfounded. Making the mine open cast would not have been economic, he says.

2:28pm: The mining environment on the West Coast of the South Island poses significant risks that can only be mitigated by specialist intervention, Dr Elder says. Specialist expertise would have been needed at the Pike River mine to make it safe according to internationally approved standards, he says. "Without these risk levels are likely to be elevated well above those which are considered appropriate for coal mining."

2:24pm: Pike River Coal was from its early planning stages "over-optimistic" about the West Coast mine's potential, Dr Elder claims. He says the mine owners did not have enough information to put the mine in line what Solid Energy would have considered "good industry practice". His top management increasingly held the view Pike River would face major challenges reaching its projections, he says.
"We believed the commercial risk associated with the Pike River development was very high."

2:19pm: Dr Elder says the objective of his submission is to provide information that is unlikely to be available elsewhere.
He says he was aware of the challenges Pike River Coal faced setting up the mine and had insight into whether their projections would be achieved.

2:14pm: Solid Energy chief executive Dr Don Elder has taken the stand at the Pike River Royal Commission of Inquiry.
1:15pm: Justice Graham Panckhurst has adjourned the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River disaster until 2pm.
12:53pm: Wilding has finished his summary with a message to the families of the Pike River dead. "We've seen you on television since 19 November last year. We met some of you earlier this year. Your tragedy has been public and it has been drawn out. Your patience has been extraordinary. "Parts of this process may test that patience further and for that we are sorry."
12:47pm: Wilding has given a summary of the issues his team feels may have contributed to the Pike River disaster. They include whether financial problems suffered by Pike River Coal Ltd compromised health and safety standards in the mine. It will also look at whether miners should have had more of a say on health and safety and raised questions over gas monitoring in the mine. Finally, legal teams will cover whether Mines Rescue teams were appropriately prepared and trained, Wilding says.
12:42pm: The inquiry will hear evidence about blowouts in the cost of the Pike River coal mine. Evidence shows estimates of the mine's construction costs rose from $29.3 million in 1997 to $207 million in 2007, Wilding says. Production then lagged behind estimates when the mine began operating, he says.
12:30pm: Questions will be raised about whether Pike River could have been an open cast coal mine, during the Royal Commission of Inquiry. In 2009 there were five underground coal mines in New Zealand, with four in the South Island - including Pike River, Wilding says. That compared to 16 open cast coal mines, 13 of which were in the South Island.
12:27pm: Concerns over New Zealand's mining health and safety laws will be raised in the course of the Pike River inquiry, Wilding says. He says questions will focus on whether the laws are reactive rather than proactive. Witnesses will also raise concerns over whether the families of the Pike River dead received sufficiently transparent communication over the course of the disaster.
12:14pm: Police and the Department of Labour have contributed "substantial" amounts of material to the Royal Commission, Wilding says.

He says material has been provided that would not have been given to other bodies.

12:00pm: Counsel for the Commission James Wilding is making an opening statement. He says allegations which are implicitly or explicitly critical of others will be made in the initial phase of the inquiry.

The response to those allegations will not be made until a later stage, he says. "It is important to reserve judgement."

11:52am: Justice Graham Panckhurst has opened the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Pike River mine tragedy.

Families expect to hear of 'negligence'

Lax mine safety standards will be revealed as an underlying cause of a deadly explosion at the Pike River mine in the first days of a Royal Commission on the disaster, families say.

Lawyers, family, media and mine officials have gathered in Greymouth this morning for the start of the commission of inquiry.

It was ordered less than a month after the first of a series of explosions ripped through the West Coast mine on November 19, killing the 29 miners and contractors working inside.

The first stage beginning this morning will look at the context of the disaster - with a focus on New Zealand's regulatory environment and the geography, approval and development of the Pike River mine.

Laurie Drew, who lost his 21-year-old son Zen Drew in the disaster, said he expected to hear about "negligence" from Government and mine officials in the coming days.

Questions would be raised over the lack of an alternate entrance to the Pike River mine, he said.

He also pointed to concerns over the fact there was only one mine inspector in the South Island at the time of the disaster.

"It will show there was negligence on the Government's part because they didn't have checks in place.

"This goes further than contractors. This starts from the top down."

Mr Drew said he wanted answers on what led to the explosions which killed his son - if only to stop another disaster happening in future.

But he was more concerned with getting Zen's body out of the mine.

"I'd rather see my boy home than all the stuff that are going on.

"I know my son's waiting for them to rescue him."

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn told Newstalk ZB the first phase will reveal enough evidence to get to the cause of the explosions.

He said it was an opportunity to get to the bottom of what happened and assure future miners that lessons have been learnt.

The decision to ditch the New Zealand mine safety inspectorate in the 1990s would be closely examined, along with the fact Pike River only had a single entrance, he said.

Prime Minister John Key recently told media Pike River would have been illegal in Australia.

Families' spokesman Bernie Monk, who lost his miner son Michael, earlier said he hoped the commission would find out the truth so the tragedy would not be repeated.

He said New Zealand had failed to learn from similar mine disasters overseas and he hoped the commission would not make the same mistake again.

"There is going to be a change in mining in New Zealand because of Pike River and all this must come out in the Royal Commission," Mr Monk said.

While he would have liked the commission to have been able to get into the mine, he was still confident the commission would reach the truth.

"I'm very impressed with the people in charge of the commission and that they are going to do their upmost to get the truth for us."

He said the families would be well represented throughout the hearings and would meet daily.

While the families had been told what was likely to come up during the proceedings, Mr Monk said he was still concerned the commission could reveal "heart-breaking" information which they did not know about.

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