'Tearful' start to Pike River inquiry

Lawyers listening to the opening address by Counsel Assisting the Commission. Photo / The Press
Lawyers listening to the opening address by Counsel Assisting the Commission. Photo / The Press

The start of the Royal Commission into the Pike River mine disaster today was a "tearful" moment for the families of the 29 men killed after explosions ripped through the coal mine last year, says a families spokesman.

The inquiry began in Greymouth District Court this morning, almost eight months after the first of a series of explosions tore through the West Coast coal mine on November 19, killing 29 men working inside.

Speaking after the hearing, families spokesman Bernie Monk, who lost his miner son Michael at Pike River, did not want to comment on any of the evidence presented, but said the families were "quite tearful" at the start of proceedings.

"The families were quite tearful... [when] the lawyer for the commission spoke out and talked about our men still being down the mine," Mr Monk said.

He said the number one priority for the families was that the commission found out the truth of how their loved ones died.

"We've got to try and make sure that policies are put in place so we don't get these accidents again."

Earlier in the day Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder told the commission that incidents like the explosion at Pike River mine should not happen.

"Modern mining is very complex, but incidents like this, with catastrophic consequences, shouldn't be able to occur in modern mining," Dr Elder said.

He said he did not believe it could have happened if all "practicable steps" had been taken, as required by the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

Three factors at Pike River mine had "significant potential" to create "a wide range of safety risks" at the time of the explosions, he said.

Factors associated with the "prolonged production and financial under-performance" of Pike River Coal Ltd would have had the "potential to create many safety risks", Dr Elder said.

Insufficient planning could have also led to increased risk, he said.

"Difficult geological conditions in a mine developed with insufficient geological information by normal mining planning standards...would have been likely to create frequent surprises...which is a common cause of elevated safety risk."

The fact the mine used a "hydraulic" method also added to risks, he said.

"From 2000 onwards I and my Solid Energy colleagues increasingly held the view that the Pike River mine would experience significant and production issues ... and this would result in major financial issues," Dr Elder said.

Counsel for "certain directors, officers and managers of Pike River Coal Ltd" Stacey Shortall cross-examined Dr Elder, questioning if he was in an adequate position to comment on safety standards at the mine.

Ms Shortall also brought into question safety standards at Solid Energy.

Solid Energy had been prosecuted three times by the Department of Labour for breaching health and safety regulations while he had been chief executive, Ms Shortall said.

Dr Elder said he recalled that Solid Energy had pleaded guilty all three times.

She said Dr Elder had never spoken with Pike River Coal Ltd chief executive Peter Peter Whittall or manager Douglas White about safety risks at the mine.

Dr Elder's evidence came after counsel assisting the commission James Wilding opened the hearing by remembering the men who died underground, and gave a background of what the commission would set out to achieve and how the hearings would be organised.

The commission was "not a criminal investigation" and it was important judgment on individuals who received any type of blame in the hearings was reserved until all the phases had been heard, Mr Wilding said.

Legal representative for the families Nicholas Davidson QC spoke of the "huge responsibility" his team of lawyers had to a "group of people who have been brave, staunch and patient throughout these last six or seven months".

Earlier, the families of the victims presented a united front as they entered the court together on a cold and dark Greymouth day.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn, former national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) Andrew Little, and Peter Whittall, former chief executive Pike River Coal Ltd, which is now in receivership, were also at the hearing.

The three-man commission, chaired by Justice Graham Panckhurst, was set up to discover what caused the explosions and how the men died, to examine the search and rescue operation following the blasts, and to make recommendations on how similar disasters can be prevented.

Justice Panckhurst is assisted by David Henry, former Inland Revenue Commissioner and head of the Electoral Commission, and Stewart Bell, mine safety and health commissioner for the Queensland state government.

The hearings have been broken up into four phases.

Beginning today and ending on July 22, the first phase will focus on New Zealand's regulatory environment and the geography, approval and development of the mine.

- NZPA

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